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Muslims in the West: Between Stereotyping and Social Acceptance

A Social Counselor’s View

Muslims in the West: Between Stereotyping and Social Acceptance
Stereotyping is a common challenge faced by Muslim’s living in the West.

Race…religion….skin color…ethnic origin…disability…gender…age…body shape…marital status…family makeup…career choice…favorite food…etc…The list goes on…we are all different!

Despite this, so much animosity exists in the world today as a result of these so called differences so it’s important that we learn how to appropriately cope with them to avoid falling into psychological distress as a result.

Embracing difference

Challenge the stereotype. People do stereotype. That seems to be a part of human nature; judging all people in a certain category based on the appearance or acts of a single or small minority group of people from the same group. Opinions will always be shaped by stereotypes and the media. For those in the minority, this can be difficult.

This is a common challenge faced by Muslim’s living in the West. However, as the one in the minority, this gives the opportunity and power to disprove any negative stereotypes. By being a good example of a Muslim, then, in true line of stereotyping, people will begin to perceive all Muslims in this positive light as they begin to challenge this inbuilt stereotype that they once held.

This also has the added benefit of making things easier for others in this same minority. Additionally, people talk, so they will share this positive stereotype with others and further encourage acceptance. As a Muslim, take it as an opportunity for da’wah, show the true beauty of a humble Muslim.

Break free from the stereotype. It is too easy to become a part of this stereotype and base your self-worth on the stereotypes that exist or the media portrayal. As a result, people can become tempted to deny the difference by either attempting to hide it or hide themselves.  Although that is not to hide the fact that there is a need to be cautious given the increased prevalence in hate crimes, but that should not stop us from at least smiling at the very least to those who cast a glance.

A smile alone can challenge any potential stereotype they hold and it feels good too and besides, who said that it’s because you are different that they are even looking? Now, this is not an article about dealing with discrimination, that’s a whole other topic on its own, here the focus is on dealing with differences, but we can also draw on some Qu’ranic quotes that would apply in both situations of discrimination and stereotypes and can help us deal with both from the very root.

When greeted with a greeting, you shall respond with a better greeting or at least an equal one. Allah reckons all things.” (Qur’an, 4:86)

Feeding into stereotypes relating to difference will restrict you, prevent you from communicating with others. You don’t have to force yourself into the stereotype that society has created. Break free from it. Accept your difference and be yourself!

Mix with different people, educate yourself. As much as we desire acceptance from others, it is as much a responsibility for us to be accepting of the differences in others. Even as Muslims, despite following the same religion we all come from different backgrounds. Instead of sticking firmly to our groups, and perhaps reinforcing any negative stereotypes simply by sitting back and not challenging them, we should reach out and mix with others. Learn about different cultures and ways of life. It can be a very enriching and educating experience, learning about the way others do things and this will encourage acceptance between many groups.

Talking with others will make the difference less prominent too. Sometimes we can be overwhelmed by our feeling of difference which leads us to not communicate with others for fear of discrimination. You already think they have negative view of you so you chose not to integrate. This is not always the case. Don’t assume what others are thinking and feeding into your own thoughts.

Don’t let this stop you from interacting with others who are seemingly ‘different’ to you. By not mixing with those who are ‘different’ you reinforce this negative stereotype both for them as well as reinforcing it in yourself. Be accepting to be accepted. Accept other’s differences and they will accept yours. This is a golden rule in Islam.

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said “None of you truly believes (in Allah and in His religion) until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself” (Al-Bukhari & Muslim)

Sometimes we can be overwhelmed by our feeling of difference which leads us to not communicate with others for fear of discrimination.

Sometimes we can be overwhelmed by our feeling of difference which leads us to not communicate with others for fear of discrimination.

Be a positive role model. This will also make you a good role model for others too, especially children,  who see people of difference interacting positively and give them the confidence to do so despite any perceived differences.

Seek commonalities. For all the differences between us, there are also similarities too. Finding commonalities between 2 people will bridge the gap between any differences and encourage dialogue.

Ultimately, let’s face it, if we were all exactly the same, wouldn’t the world be so boring?

What about the children?

As adults, facing differences is difficult, so what about the children? Children need to know that being different is ok too.

In most cases children are quite resilient. They’ve not yet been exposed to the negative media, but parental attitudes can hold just as strong an effect which is why our input should not be overlooked and we should all be active in educating our children on acceptance of difference.

Overt discrimination around being different that we face as adults is not usually exhibited in the same way, if at all, with children. Acceptance and appreciation of difference is usually enough in children, but at other times kids discriminate in less overt ways, excluding them from the group or staring at them. This might not be in a cruel way, in fact in young kids it really isn’t, it’s just that they don’t understand or they have never seen someone with brown skin or in a wheelchair before, for example.

Begin at home. Talk about difference. Not just racial, but everything. Children need to learn acceptance of other’s differences, as much as they need to feel accepted for their own differences. Beginning at home provides a safe forum to address differences. Look at their friends and family with them. How are they the same? How are they different?

It’s ok to be different. Mummy likes potato most, but daddy likes rice more and you prefer pasta, but we accept that and are not mean to each other because of it. We love each other anyway even though we like different things. It would get pretty boring if we ate rice everyday, right?

 A smile alone can challenge any potential stereotype they hold and it feels good too.

A smile alone can challenge any potential stereotype they hold and it feels good too.

Grandma wears glasses, but grandpa does not, in fact neither does anyone else in the family, but that doesn’t mean we love grandma any less just because she wears glasses.

We all have the same purpose. Ahmad’s mummy takes him to school in a little red car and Ibrahim’s daddy takes him to school in a big blue car. Does it matter that the cars are different? No, because they are both serving the same purpose; to get the children to school. Much like us as humans, even though we might be different in many ways, we are all here for the same purpose; to worship Allah.

Highlight strengths. Ja’far has brown skin, and Abdullah has white skin but they both still love playing football and in fact, even though Ja’far is the only brown boy in the school, he is even better at football than everyone so it really doesn’t matter what color his skin is! Sometimes we are not as different as we think. Everyone has their own talents so instead of feeling isolated for being different; help them to think of the things they are good at instead.

Build strong self esteem. In addition to focusing on strengths it is important to instill strong sense of heritage and acceptance of who they are and what their cultural background is.

Be aware of the media. Look at the kind of books/media/TV.. etc that they are exposed to and the attitudes they promote. It is useful to expose children to diversity in the books that they read from a young age to promote awareness and acceptance in them. This can also help them feel comfortable and confident in their own differences by seeing them represented in the books they read and enjoy.

All this said, sometimes bullying due to difference does happen and this should not just be brushed under the carpet. Whilst we should reassure them that people usually behave like this when they don’t understand something, they also need to know that bullying is not ok and should be reported to an adult.

…Or are we really different at all?

Ultimately, we need to remind ourselves that in the eyes of Allah we are all the same and the only difference that really matters is our piety. We might all look different, be from different backgrounds and like different things, but ultimately we are all here for the same purpose…to worship Allah.

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety (taqwa) and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.” (The Last sermon, Prophet Muhammad, PBUH)

First published: February 2016

About Hannah Morris

Hannah Morris is a mum of 4 and she currently works as Counsellor and Instructor of BSc. Psychology at the Islamic Online University (IOU). She obtained her MA degree in Psychology and has over 10 years of experience working in health and social care settings in the UK, USA, and Ireland. Check out her personal Facebook page, ActiveMindCare, that promotes psychological well-being in the Ummah. (

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