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Peeling Back the Layers, Understanding Islam and Muslims

Used with permission

Amid the turmoil in the Middle East, 28-year-old Mohammed Arafah is positive about the future.

“After the 9-11 attack, people get to know us more,” Arafah said. “The way of connection people are using now is more modern and fast… We can reach the other world and tell them about ourselves and they get to know us and we get to know them.”

A Missouri State University alumnus, Arafah is currently back home in Medina, Saudi Arabia, pursuing a career in IT management.

It’s spring in Medina, with temperatures in the 70s. Arafah spends his weekends taking walks in the park and visiting friends. His life, and that of his friends’, centers around career, job hunting, and family, like many other people his age.

“But the thing is, people on the media think we all follow ISIS,” said Arafah.

That’s a very unfortunate stereotype, says Dr. David Romano, a political science professor at Missouri State University with an emphasis on the Middle East. He attempts to debunk this myth by first explaining the various aspects of Islam.   

“It’s a natural tendency to look at Islam as if it’s one religion. Technically, it is one religion,” Romano said. “Christianity is one religion of which Protestantism is one denomination. But is a protestant in this part of southwest Missouri comparable in any meaningful sense to a protestant in the Netherlands in terms of what we might expect about their political attitudes, their views on society, social issues, economic issues? I would suggest not.”  

He continued, “And so it goes with Islam… Islam is a basic religious code that’s grafted onto preexisting cultures, languages and traditions. So Islam in Morocco is very different than Islam in Saudi Arabia, than Islam in Indonesia, than Islam in Turkey and Islam in the United States.” 

Arafah experienced some common stereotypes during his years spent in the United States. He said most people think that all Arabs are Muslim and all Muslims must be Arab.

“Not all Arabs are Muslim,” Romano said. “Many are Christians.”

Arafah said there are Arabs who are atheists and Jewish, and the world’s largest Muslim population is in Indonesia in southern Asia.

“And another stereotype people think is that all Muslims are terrorists,” said Arafah.

“I think it works into the kind of clash civilizations that radical Islamists like those of the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda want to promote,” Romano said. "The real world is much more complex than that.” 

Take the example of the recent presidential primary in Michigan, Romano says, in which Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, won the majority of democratic votes in Dearborn, a city with a large Arab-American population.

“That shouldn’t happen if we have a simplistic view on these people because they are supposed to hate Jews with the Israel-Palestine conflict going on,” Romano elaborated. “But in reality, most Muslims and Arabs in America are just like everyone else. They care about minimum wages, finding jobs, education for their kids, healthcare, and they choose their candidate accordingly. That’s what reality looks like.”

Romano added that the most determined opposition group fighting ISIS is Sunni Muslim Kurds, who see ISIS as an anathema.

“Many of those Sunni Muslim Kurds fighting ISIS tooth and nail in places like Sinjar and elsewhere are devout Muslims in their private lives,” said Romano.

As a Muslim, Arafah doesn’t believe the terrorist organizations represent the Islam religion.

“People who do these attacks are using the name of Islam adjusting their act,” Arafah said. “I’m 100 percent sure they know nothing about the true Islam or about being true Muslim. Otherwise they won’t be the ones doing such things.”

Romano explained that the Islamic State would like people to forget about other loyalties, and sacrifice everything to the re-interpreted politicalized religion that it created.

“We’ll only help ISIS if we turn around and typecast all Muslim simplistically as adhering to some religion that’s inherently radical,” Romano said. “That’s disservice and insulting to Muslims…. Islam and the cultures attached to it is a lot more complex than that.”

Dr. Sobhi Malek is a 40-year missionary who teaches and speaks on Islam and Muslim evangelism. The ordained minister with the Assemblies of God is conducting an ongoing lecture series at Evangel University in Springfield focusing on the origins and implications of the Islamic State. In his March 8 address, Malek asked what the church can do about the caliphate.

“The answer is, as the Church of Jesus Christ prays with faith, she should expect God to answer and bring many Muslims to Christ. Therefore, we need to be ready and prepared to receive and disciple the great numbers of Muslims who will enter the Kingdom of Christ.”

Malek added, “The important thing is not to talk about their doctrine and how to change it but to show them the love of Christ. The love of God. That’s the most important thing.”

While Romano understands Christians being faithful to their beliefs, as a political scientist he disagrees with the approach. 

Noelle Russo, a MBA graduate student at Missouri State University, is a devout Christian. She told KSMU that she believes evangelism is effective if the goal is to mend brokenness and darkness; “but just throwing the word Christianity at somebody and hoping they’ll change is not (effective).”

“Modern day Christians or the real Christians I should say, see the world as broken and dark, because the Bible says ‘when we sin, we fell short’,” Russo said. “We are broken; we are human; it’s human nature to be bad. And the only person who’s perfect and holy is God. So I think when people evangelize Muslim is not saying ‘my way is better than yours’; it’s saying ‘you are broken and that’s why you are doing the things you are doing.'”

The third lecture in Malek’s series will take place April 6 at Evangel.  Malek did not respond to requests for comment from KSMU on the series. His archived lectures can be viewed here.

With an increasing fear of Muslims in the U.S. society, Romano thinks it’s the radicals we should fear.

“We should fear radical Muslims subscribe to ISIS ideology the same way we should fear white supremacist Christians in the KKK.”

Romano used the example of Frazier Glenn Miller of Aurora, Missouri, who was recently sentenced to death for the 2014 shootings at a Jewish Community Center and nearby retirement home in Kansas. Miller had said he shot his victims because he wanted to kill Jewish people. All three victims were Christians.  

Both Romano and Arafah encourage people to talk to Muslims, learn about who they are, and know their histories and their place in the world.

“If someone has an overarching fear of 1.2 million people in the world, they need to start peeling back the layers of the onion to understand a bit more about the people then they will feel better about the whole situation,” said Romano.

While going to school at MSU, Arafah made friends with many Christians, atheists and taught them about Islam. He also changed his preexisting perspectives about other religions through communication.

“If we fear each other, then we can’t communicate with each other, we can’t get to know each other,” Arafah said. “I encourage people to just ask each other and know each other. The world would be a better place if we do so.”

Citing many fond memories and friends in the U.S., Arafah said, “I plan to go back to visit one day.”

Correction: In our original post, it mentioned Arafah engaging in dating in Saudi Arabia. According to Arafah, he and his friends do not engage in dating in Saudi Arabia without female relatives' arrangements.