Shattering Stereotypes Is a Nonnegotiable for Missions among Muslims

Francine Jones* wanted to visit her daughter, Amber,* where she lives in the Middle East among Muslims. But she was scared. Francine had never met a Muslim, and her perception of them was influenced mostly by what she saw in the news—Muslim fundamentalists carrying out acts of terror.

But Francine’s love and longing for her daughter overwhelmed fear. She got on a plane and landed in Amber’s new home, a country that’s 82 percent Muslim. Amber showed her mother where she lives—the shops she likes, the best place to get coffee, and her cozy apartment. Amber introduced her mother to her friends at the student center where she teaches English.

There, Francine met Amber’s friend Nadine.* She saw a lot of herself in Nadine because they come from similar family backgrounds. Both of them grew up in poverty, both came from abusive homes, and both rose above those circumstances to become successful and confident women. Francine is a Christian, and Nadine is Muslim, and their life experiences knit them together. The ladies exchanged contact information, and they now frequently text one another.

Francine realized that she needed to meet Muslims and interact with them in order to know what Muslims are really like. “They aren’t all terrorists and extremists. They are just normal people living in a different part of the world,” she told Amber as she mentally processed her trip.

Stopping the Stereotypes

Before her trip, Francine didn’t have a personal experience to replace the stereotype of Muslims that had been cultivated by her own fears and media outlets. She’s not alone. According to Pew Research, 45 percent of Americans don’t personally know a Muslim.

Most people revert to stereotypes to help them imagine people they’ve never met or cultures they’ve never experienced. These stereotypes lead to generalizations and an oversimplification of people and cultures, which leads to prejudice.

“But when we meet and know someone of a different ethnicity or religion, we are confronted with the reality that people can’t be pigeonholed.”

The danger of leaning on stereotypes is that they usually tilt toward extremes, often typified by outliers in a given group. They lead us to ignore what makes everyone unique. We begin to believe everyone in a group is the same, which is unjust to the personhood of every member of that group. When our views of others are stereotypical, we tend to see them less as a person and more of a negative action associated with a subset of their population.

But when we meet and know someone of a different ethnicity or religion, we are confronted with the reality that people can’t be pigeonholed.

As Christians, we can probably call to mind instances when people have applied outdated and inaccurate stereotypes to us. We bristle when we are stereotyped, so why would we do the same to others?

On a spiritual level, if we see every person as someone the Father created, and if we wipe the dirty windshields of our eyes and heart that sully our perceptions of the world around us, we’d see each man, woman, and child as a person created in the image of God. Anna James,* one of Amber’s coworkers, worded it this way: “If we choose to see Muslims how Jesus does, we’ll then consider their eternity when we look at them. We’ll want to share the hope we have for a glorious eternity and that this eternity can be theirs also.”

All We Have in Common

Going back to Francine’s experience, we see she was able to overcome a stereotype of Muslims when she met Nadine and saw not only her personhood, but everything they have in common. Truthfully, though Muslims in the Middle East have different languages, dress, and traditions, they grapple with many of the same issues we do in the States. Here are three.

1. The Search for Personal Meaning

According to Amber, Nadine and the young adults she spends time with look for fulfillment in the same places as young adults in the US. Like many millennials, they feel the pressure to be successful, they live under the weight of parental expectations, and they daydream about opportunities for travel.

Young adults like Nadine are under pressure from their parents to succeed, and many live with a fear of disappointing them if they don’t. Pressure to succeed is also a common weight carried by people in the West, though it may be driven more by self-prescribed expectations and perfectionism.

2. Increasing Apathy toward Religion

One of the things that surprised another of Amber’s colleagues when she first arrived was that while the young adults in her city are conservative and identify as Muslims, they are not as devout as their parents’ generation. This apathy toward religion is also markedly apparent in Western countries and dominates Christian and secular conversations and research.

3. The Desire and Search for Love

This one is obvious but helpful to remember: everyone, regardless of ethnicity and religion, has a God-given desire to be loved. Muslims in the Middle East, just like Christians in the Midwest, want to be deeply known and cherished. This core desire, of course, leads to conversations about a love greater than any human could give and the One who truly can know and understand us.

Moving toward Understanding

Dismantling stereotypes is a marathon, not a sprint. So how can we begin the process of removing our fears and stereotypes in order to love our Muslim neighbors?

In a sermon on racial reconciliation, Dr. Eric Mason said what’s first needed to reconcile differences and heal hurt in society and culture is repentance. Dr. Mason, who pastors Epiphany Fellowship in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, said repentance needs to happen on an individual level. As we consider our views of Muslims, let’s repent of any beliefs that are not biblical and ask God to replace these beliefs with truth about the people he created and loves.

Then, as the Lord is working on your heart, consider the following suggestions.

  1. Learn a few greetings in Arabic. Communicating in a person’s language shows you respect and value them. As-salamu alaykum” is the most common Arabic greeting and means “peace be upon you.”
  2. Choose a region or Muslim people and begin praying for them. Ask the Lord to soften hearts to the gospel.
  3. Seek out genuine friendships with Muslims in your community. Find culturally appropriate ways to connect. This might look like asking someone of the same gender about holidays and important events in their community.
  4. Read books to help you understand Muslim culture. Here are a few that Amber and her coworkers recommend: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity or No God but One: Allah or Jesus? A Former Muslim Investigates the Evidence for Islam and Christianity, both by Nabeel Qureshi, and Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door by Roland Muller.

*Name changed