7 questions Muslims are tired of hearing

These are only just some of the questions, based on prevalent misconceptions about the Muslim community, that people keep on asking.


'There’s a fine line between curiosity and ridiculousness'

Muslims seem to be this era’s hot topic. To some degree, it’s understandable. ISIS-related terrorist acts have grabbed media headlines over recent years, adding fuel to the fire in an already turbulent Middle East, and inspiring a chain of horrific terrorist attacks around the world- all in the name of Islam. So, of course, the world’s gaze turns to this religion to understand what exactly is going on.

Various aspects of Islam are constantly debated, dissected and discussed by the media so it’s natural that some non-Muslims become curious; what are they really teaching in those mosques? Who’s really hiding under that burqa? (Hint: it might be Senator Hanson) Why can’t ‘they’ live peacefully with ‘us’?

Various aspects of Islam are constantly debated, dissected and discussed by the media so it’s natural that some non-Muslims become curious; what are they really teaching in those mosques?

Now don’t get me wrong. In a healthy, cohesive society contentious issues ought to be debated. But there’s a fine line between curiosity and ridiculousness, and all too often it seems that the questions we get- no thanks to some hysterical media and populist politicians- are of the latter kind. Here’s a quick collection of my seven favourites.

1. Why does your religion make you wear a hijab?

Now as a male, I don’t have the weight of personal experience on my side to answer this question, but I’ve heard enough frustrated female friends rant about this to know this common question needed discussing.

The operative word here is ‘make’: it takes away agency from Muslim women and implies their lack the capacity to make decisions themselves. I also can’t answer this question for women who choose to wear the hijab - the reasons could be as diverse as the women who choose to wear it. But curiosity is great! And if you’re wondering why an acquaintance or friend of yours wears the hijab, ask them. But do them a favour and try to appreciate their point of view, even if you don’t understand it. 

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2. Why is your religion so violent?

This question, for me, is the most difficult to answer but the most commonly posed. Unless you live under a rock it’s difficult to ignore the issue of religiously motivated extremism. As a young Muslim, you constantly feel the pressure to explain the totality of your religion to people outside of it or prove your innocence in matters related to terrorism. But this issue requires a lot of unpacking.

First, the extremist violence perpetrated by groups like ISIS has been denounced by various Islamic organisations and Muslim scholars as fundamentally un-Islamic. Not only does ISIS represent a significant break from Islamic tradition, among their victims are Muslims that don’t agree with them.

As a young Muslim, you constantly feel the pressure to explain the totality of your religion to people outside of it or prove your innocence in matters related to terrorism.

Secondly, conflating conflict in Muslim majority countries with Islam itself, as is often done, is overly simplistic. It overlooks the role economic insecurity, political oppression and historical legacies play in planting the seeds of violence. As Muslims, we need to reclaim our religion from the violent interpretations of extremist groups. That requires unapologetically and firmly inserting that the religion itself, protected from these external factors listed above, is not intrinsically violent, regardless of how much extremist and anti-Islam groups would want to convince otherwise. So, no I don’t think my religion is violent. If it were, in a world of 1.6 billion Muslims, acts of violence would be far more widespread, in every city, workplace and shop where a Muslim existed. Yes, there are a number of violent extremist groups acting in the name of Islam, but not every Muslim can or should have to answer for that.

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3. Why do Muslims want sharia law in Australia?

While I was talking to a local MP at a recent community event, the fact that I’m Muslim came up in conversation. The MP's eyes lit up and she seemed genuinely happy that young Muslims were getting involved in the community, and exclaimed how important community and inter-faith cohesion is, before slipping in a quick caveat ‘of course there are limits, you can’t have everything, like sharia law you know. We have to respect that there’s Australian law here’. She then continued on about how fantastic a Muslim friend’s wedding she attended had been. This comment took me by surprise. It was unfortunate that this otherwise well-meaning, sincere person I was talking to felt she needed to ensure, just for peace of mind, that I knew how Australian law worked. This encounter basically sums up how sharia and other Islamic bogey-words are interpreted by the wider public.

Sharia is a term that refers to the moral, legal and religious codes that guide a Muslim’s life, similar to religious frameworks, which guide the lives of other faith groups. Certain aspects of it are also incorporated into law in Muslim majority countries, but how this is done is a topic of debate.

Sharia is a term that refers to the moral, legal and religious codes that guide a Muslim’s life, similar to religious frameworks, which guide the lives of other faith groups.

However, to think that sharia law is some codified book that will suddenly be enforced in a secular and multicultural country like Australia one day is naïve and misleading. Australia’s multicultural society rests on secular legal institutions. This means that the religious beliefs of one group cannot and should not be enforced on others. Let alone the beliefs of a religion whose adherents only make up 2.6 per cent of the Australian population. Importantly, this also means that Muslims are able to practice their religion freely and openly, rendering any need or interest for the imposition of ‘sharia law’ obsolete.    

Not to mention the fact that being a committed, active citizen of your nation is encouraged in Islamic tradition. Particularly in a country like Australia which guarantees freedom of religion and belief.

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4. Is halal food a religious tax?

Oh, how I long for the days when I didn’t have to ask if food was halal in a hushed voice. No, halal food is not a religious tax.

The cost of halal certification is negligible and its overall purpose is no different than organic food or free-range egg certifications- to cater to a section of the market that has particular dietary requirements or expectations.

If you want an example of benign terms being twisted for fear mongering and political purposes, you won’t find an example better than this. In fact, this became so absurd that a senate committee formed to investigate third-party certification of food looked into any links between halal certification and funding of terrorism as part of its report

Unsurprisingly, finding nothing of note.

If you want more information about this mysterious term, the Australian government actually has a decent page devoted to it. 

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5. Does Islam hate women?

There’s a saying that religion comes alive at the hands of men. In the case of contemporary Muslim societies, the ‘hands of men’ part is all too accurate.

The fact is that in some Muslim majority countries, patriarchal norms and structures have shaped nationally specific understandings of Islam. And there’s a long way to go to decouple Islam from these cultural aspects in these countries. 

But to think that Islam – in all countries in which it is practiced, across all cultures -fundamentally ‘hates’ women or that Muslim women need to be saved from their religion is a simplistic view. It also overlooks the fact that Muslim women- not to mention Muslim feminists- proudly practice their faith while battling gender stereotypes that others try to impose on them.

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6. What are ‘they’ teaching in those mosques?

Senator Pauline Hanson’s claim that mosques should be monitored by CCTV is an ill-informed suggestion. While the issue of radicalisation needs to be taken seriously, suggesting that mosques might be the cause of radicalisation or terrorism issue may stem from the problematic accusation that all things Islam = terror.

Mosques are more than prayer spaces. They are a site for socialising, hosting community programs and facilitating inter-faith dialogue. Importantly, numerous studies have shown that mosques are important for providing social and emotional support, providing a mainstream alternative to the violent and extremist views younger people may be exposed to online. If you’re curious about what happens behind the closed doors of the domed building in your neighbourhood, visit it for yourself. You’ll find that the doors are usually closed because the aircon is on! 

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7. So…what do you think of ISIS?

What does any person with a reasonable level of empathy think of a group that prides itself on genocide and destruction? People asking this question either think that by virtue of being Muslim, I have some privileged insights about ISIS which others don’t, or they aren’t comfortable enough around a Muslim without ensuring they’re not holding some deep dark secret.

The fact is that the number of Muslims who have joined or sympathise with violent extremist groups are tiny compared to those who continuously condemn and reject the perverse take on Islam acted on by extremist groups. So, no: most of the Muslims you know aren’t secret ISIS sympathisers, and it’d serve us all well if people were reflective about the bias and stereotypes which form their opinions before they decide to ask a question like this.

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Gaining perspective

Regardless of how tiresome these questions can get, the fact is that other Muslims and I will keep getting them  – not because people are necessarily Islamophobic or ill-intending. But because the cacophony of discussion on all things Muslim (whether on social media, on television or by politicians) means that there’s a constant stream of misinformation. Sometimes intentional sometimes not. That means that a lot Muslims are happier receiving thorny questions in person than people looking for answers online.

But it’s tiring to constantly be the news cycles hot topic, or being viewed as a security threat rather than an ordinary person, or being constantly talked about and not being talked to. Hopefully, this little piece can give a little more perspective, a little more nuance for the next time you talk to a Muslim you know.

The Mosque Next Door

The Mosque Next Door begins Wednesday 8 November, 8.40pm on SBS, and continues on Wednesdays. Episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand