1) Where are you from? Or where are you really from? Or where are your parents from?
The assumption here is that Muslims are from a different country (namely from the Middle East.) However, there are plenty of Americans who have converted to Islam. This includes African-Americans (who make up between 40-45 percent of American Muslims), White Americans, Latinos/Chicanos and other ethnicities. Some individuals are relentless in their pursuit to find out “the real ethnicity” of a Muslim co-worker. They cannot stop at “where are you from?” especially if the answer is “Chicago.” Why are you making things so difficult? Now your co-worker is required to probe further, asking with a sigh, “No, where are you really from? Where are your parents from?” If you say Chicago again or some other city in the United States you have now thoroughly confused said co-worker. You must say “Egypt” or “Kuwait.” It’d be even better if you said “Iraq” or “Saudi Arabia” because all would be right in the world again.
From a Latina Muslim friend: She was at work one day and her co-workers were complaining about the heat. One of them said to her, “You’re probably not hot because you come from a desert country.” My friend is Puerto Rican by way of the Bronx. She has a very pronounced New York accent…
2) You speak English really well! Or why don’t you have an accent?
I should speak English well, it’s my first and only language! (Which also explains why I don’t have an accent).
Again, the assumption here is if a person is Muslim then they are not from this country. And if they don’t have a good command of the English language it also implies they’re a recent immigrant.
True Story: I once went to speak to a group of journalists who were visiting the U.S. from several different countries. The speaking engagement was sponsored by an international center that prides itself on connecting its visitors with Americans doing work in particular fields. After the engagement was over, an employee of the center proceeded to tell me what a great job I did and how very articulate I was. With a smile on her face she said, “You speak so well!” I wondered if she would say the same thing to a White non-Muslim?
3) What is your hair like under there?
Part of the reason a woman wears hijab (the head scarf and modest clothing) is so that she is not publically displaying “certain physical attributes.” This includes her hair. If a Muslim woman doesn’t voluntarily share what her hair looks like then it would best not to ask. Some Muslim women may find the question a little invasive (especially if it is asked by a male colleague or in the presence of male colleagues.) My hair and my body are private matters that are not up for public discussion or description. In the same way that you would not ask a woman to describe her breasts you should not ask me to describe my hair.
4) Wow, I didn’t know you could do that!
“That” can mean anything from telling jokes to bowling to running a marathon. Contrary to the media images we are fed day in and day out, Muslims are human beings. We have disagreements with our spouses, concerns about the rising gas prices or which schools to send our children to. We also have hobbies or interests which may not be religious in nature. We might participate in a walk for breast cancer, work out at a gym or have a good time at Dave and Busters.
5) Why do terrorists hate us?
Why don’t you ask them? The question implies that I either speak to terrorists on a regular basis or am affiliated with them in some way. Just as neo-Nazi groups do not speak for all Christians; terrorists groups do not speak for all Muslims.
6) Can you explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Or the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq? Or the Kurds etc.
I cannot be expected to have knowledge of every conflict- be it political, tribal, personal, regional or cultural- simply because it involves other Muslims. Yes, some Muslims might have an inside scoop because they hail from a specific country or cultural group but it is certainly not true of all Muslims.
True Story: A co-worker from China once asked me about the conflict between Chinese Muslims and the government. Though I was aware of the fact that there are Muslims in China, I had no idea what she was talking about. I wondered why my co-worker felt I would have more knowledge on the subject than her. She is actually from China, not me!
7) My Muslim friend [insert name] doesn’t do/wear/say that, why do you?
There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. We come from different racial groups, cultures, and ethnicities. In terms of our practice of Islam, we range from the most conservative to the most liberal and everywhere in between. Some Muslims live in remote villages, some live in urban, bustling cities, and some live in suburbs or country sides. Muslims have disagreements about how to implement Islamic principles into our daily lives. We also have disagreements about what our religion requires of us. Though we have many similarities (like the pilgrimage to Mecca) we also have many differences (like what languages we speak.) We are not a monolithic group. I am also an individual.
Your friend Omar/Fatima might be okay going to happy hour with you. He or she may engage in drinking and merriment without a care in the world. At the same time, another Muslim may believe it is against his/her religion to go to happy hour. Please respect their difference in practice and move along. Really, what is the point of asking the following question: “Omar goes with us and he’s Muslim, why can’t you?”
8 ) You converted because of your husband?
More than half of the people who convert to Islam are women. We do so for many different reasons. Yes, some women were introduced to Islam through their husbands, this is true. However, somewhere in this question lies the belief that an American woman would only convert to Islam because of a man. She couldn’t possibly do so because she was attracted to the tenets of the religion. It has to be because some persuasive Muslim dude who got in her head.
Something to note: (1) Your Muslim co-worker may not be married (2) she may have made the decision to convert after a careful study of the religion (3) There are American Muslims (non-immigrant) who did not convert but were raised in Muslim families
The collective sigh of Muslimah converts: Don’t give the “credit” to a man. We have a brain, we read, we study and love this religion…all on our own.
This post inspired by 10 Things Never to Say to a Black Co-Worker and 7 Things Never to Say to a Asian Executive