When said: “Muslims are terrorists”, we quickly point out the faulty logic in that statement. We know this is not true. We know this idea and statement have harmful impacts. As a result, we oppose it. The argument goes something like this:
A, B and C are Muslims.
A, B and C are Terrorists.
Therefore all Muslims are terrorists.
Without doubt not all Muslims are terrorists, and the fact that some terrorists identify as Muslims does not make all Muslims that way. The conclusion that all Muslims are terrorists is a logical fallacy, an error in thinking. The specific has been made general without evidence.
Although we are enthusiastic in responding to, correcting and criticizing the statement that “Muslims are terrorists”, we are guilty far too often of making the same errors when speaking about others. Take, for example:
A, B and C are [insert ethnic group].
A, B and C are [insert negative trait].
Therefore all [ethnic group] are [negative trait].
No specific examples of commonly held racial and ethnic stereotypes that negatively portray one people will be presented here. However, in the negative trait part of the above sentences you’ve probably heard it completed with: are stupid, are bad drivers, are thieves, are violent, are liars, are dirty, are criminals, are poor, are lazy… the list goes on. We hear them. May Allah protect us, we may even say them. We may use names for certain groups in a demeaning fashion. Somehow, in these cases, we tend not to see the logical fallacy, the hatred and the discrimination.
Naturally, we are quick to point to the stance Islam takes against racism and discrimination. Standing shoulder to shoulder in prayer. The final sermon. That humans are created equal. Examples of racism being dealt with by the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him).
To a degree, stereotypes are a result of natural and normal thinking, not rooted in hatred. The complex world around us is made simpler with generalizations of this sort. These become problematic when laden with value and judgment. Often this “othering” is a product of lacking interaction with the group in question. In other cases, ideas might be influenced by the media or a limited set of experiences. Some may even defend these stereotypes by pointing to correlational or experiential evidence. However, the “Muslims are terrorists” case ought to be a telling reminder of how harmful these incorrect ideas can be. Furthermore, persistence of these ideas can result in prejudice, discrimination and hate, whereby jokes manifest themselves in destructive forms. These ideas may also negatively influence members of the discriminated group who may begin to think less of themselves and lower their standards, a self-fulfilling prophesy of sorts.
As the Companions struggled with this issue, it ought to come as no surprise that we too struggle with this issue. That struggle, in fact, is the only valid way in which we differ, that is through our piety. First and foremost we need to recognize and acknowledge that these stereotypes, generalizations and discriminatory ideas exist. Individually and collectively we need to stand for justice, by challenging our own prejudices and advising those from whom we hear such ideas. Racism, discrimination and hate will only be effectively dealt with when each of us, all of us, value and treat others equally. This challenge may not disappear, which means there will always be room for improvement, room for struggle and room for refinement.