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Stereotypes as Mental Shortcuts

Counter Islamophobia Through Stories Share a Story

When I was asked to write about Muslim stereotypes, I wasn’t sure if I was the right person for it. Sure, I was raised in a Muslim family. I am of Indian origin, grew up in Oman in the Middle East and have lived in North America for over ten years. But I am not religious.

Even when I did self-identify as a Muslim, most people did not think I was one. I think this is because I wore no head-coverings and am fairly outgoing. Most people simply thought I was “Indian” and hence Hindu. Interestingly, my Indian husband who is from a Hindu background gets frequently mistaken as Jewish in the United States.


On Stereotypes

I am not active in any religious community, so I didn’t think I would now have anything to say about Muslim stereotypes. I spend my hours these days working on my doctorate degree and watching television shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Indian Summers” with my husband. I have recently started experimenting with plant cuttings and board games, both of which are thrilling exercises.

But then I remembered that stereotypes are about how people define you regardless of how you define yourself. It’s a helpless sort of feeling and terrifying when the people who are defining you are powerful and angry enough.

I know I still get affected by Muslim stereotypes, especially after marrying my husband. I now get to interact with Indians more frequently now even though we live in the United States, and I have noticed that Indians approach me in a certain way. For one thing, they may expect me to be an expert on Urdu poetry. While it’s true that Urdu is my mother tongue and that I can appreciate its poetry, it really isn’t a thing with me. That seems to be a part of a sensual, elite Muslim stereotype in India.

And the biryani.

Ever so often it seems as if when I meet Indians for the first time, they tell me up front about how they love biryani. At first I wasn’t sure how to react; I don’t really have an opinion about the dish. It’s not really a part of the cuisine in the part of the country I am from. Sometimes people go one step further and ask me for a biryani recipe.

Actually, I don’t have a biryani recipe. My family never really ate biryani. I only learned to make biryani as an adult like most people do these days – from YouTube. And it’s a Pakistani recipe. I was in my late 20s and just curious. I very rarely make biryani because most of the time I eat other things. When I tell people my biryani story, they seem really disappointed. And I feel like a bad person. It gets awkward.

Sometimes the biryani topic comes up when people are trying to be friendly. But as a person who grew up mostly outside of India, I find it jarring, especially since it keeps coming up and only with people from India. I almost feel like people are looking at me as if I’m a cartoon.

Personally, when I think of Muslims, I see faces from all sorts of racial backgrounds. A Muslim can be from any country and of any race. The eat anything and everything from rice to noodles to bread to pasta. Reducing Muslims, in the case of South Asia, to food items like biryani always comes across as uninformed and lazy to me.

Broad Brush Strokes

At its very worst, stereotypes can lead to the dehumanization of entire social groups and the violation of their human rights. In India, several generalizations are made about Muslims. Some of them are vicious. Muslims continue to be blamed for the creation of Pakistan in the mid-twentieth century. They are seen by some as traitors and untrustworthy. The men are caricaturized as hypersexual; interestingly, the women are fetishized as either the enticing courtesan or the oppressed domestic.

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I have been told by people at various points in my life that Muslims are sword-yielding, short-tempered, violent, and that they can’t take a joke. In India Muslims are seen as “meat-eaters” and are hence considered unclean by some segments of society. When I was in middle school in Oman, I once had a Hindi teacher from India who would inadvertently end up mocking Muslims during his lectures.

I remember one day when he made some strange comment about how, despite all his misgivings about Muslims, he found their women attractive. “There’s just something about them,” he had said with a dreamy look in his eye. The discomfort I felt that day as a young teenager has stayed with me since. In one word, gross.

The T-word

Back in the United States, speculations about Barack Obama’s religious beliefs have dogged him since his first presidential bid in 2008. Some have repeatedly suspected that he is a “secret Muslim” and that that should have disqualified him from being president.

Then of course there is the t-word. I was once at an amazing free clinic run by a hijab-wearing Muslim woman in the US, and an elderly white physician who volunteered there told my white, male colleague that he had initially thought the clinic was a front for a terrorist organization. He didn’t want to say this on tape where he was full of praise for the clinic.

Stereotypes are a frightening mental shortcut that can lead to devastating outcomes for both the groups being stereotyped and the groups doing the stereotyping. At the level of the individual, they cause self-loathing and other inner conflicts. They can cause unequal access to resources in society and can affect life expectancy.

Stereotypes are frankly toxic to the world at large, and I don’t think one needs to be a member of a stereotyped group to find its stereotypes upsetting. Stereotypes, Muslim or otherwise, are everyone’s problem.

 Khadija Ejaz is an award-winning author; her non-fiction book "My Friend is Hindu" was recognized in the United States by the South Asia Book Award in 2016. Khadija has written several books, including "My Friend is MuslimOriginally from India, she grew up in the Sultanate of Oman and has lived in the United States for over a decade. Khadija has worked at New Delhi Television in India and is currently pursuing her doctorate degree in Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Prior to her career in the media, Khadija trained and worked in the field of information technology

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