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Is the seduction of a single story limiting your view of Muslims?

Shane Bennett has spent the past 30 years helping Christians learn to love Muslims and Muslims learn to love Jesus. He has worked in dozens of countries and has become friends with Muslims from England all the way east to Malaysia and many points in between.

He works for Healing Nations and lives in southern Colorado where he occasionally shares the pulpit with his generous pastor. He writes weekly at shanebennett.com and speaks around the U.S. and beyond.

© Photographee.eu/stock.adobe.com

The cave was dark, cool, and very, very close. 

I’d been through it twice before (a veritable expert!), so I felt upbeat leading my friends. 

I confidently chose the path to the left. Soon, we were crawling on hands and knees. Shortly after squirming along on our bellies, our hard hats bumped the ceiling! 

Two thoughts competed in my head: “I thought this was the right way” and “I sure don’t recognize this!” 

After five minutes of prone shuffling, my fears were confirmed when I poked my head around a corner to discover the path completely closing down. 

I thought I’d known the way. I thought I’d known that cave! 

But when it became apparent I didn’t, when I had to tell my friends to reverse squirm back to the junction, I thought they might bury me right there.

Perhaps you can recall being “blessed” with a similar realization. It’s a gift even when it doesn’t feel pleasant. Seeing things as they really are is better than assuming we know more than we do. (Just ask my caving friends!) 

But, boy oh boy, are we prone to assume. 

“The danger of the single story” 

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns in her charming and hugely popular TED talk about “the danger of the single story.” She asserts that when you know only one thing about a situation, a person, or group, you probably come to wrong, or certainly incomplete, assumptions.  

I grew up with a single story about Baptists. We had one Baptist church in my little Indiana town, whose door I never darkened. But the word on the street, at least amongst us young, theologically sophomoric United Methodists was, “They believe once saved, always saved. That’s so they can ‘get saved’ then do whatever they want.” I’m not proud of that. I’ve since gone on to work in the shadow of brilliant Baptist missionaries in many parts of the world.  

Neither am I proud of my single story about Catholics who got busted up on the Jesus-loving shores of Mumbai and Sicily. Nor my single story of Nigerians, which is getting undone as I read Adichie’s novel Americanah

Jesus wreaked havoc on his Jewish contemporaries’ single story about the Samaritans: “They don’t measure up.” In the Jews’ minds, Samaritans had compromised on the faith, marriage, worship practice, and fidelity to the tribe. They were second-rate. But Jesus insisted there was much more to be considered. He made note of one Samaritan’s superior capacity for gratitude (Luke 17:11–17). He made a Samaritan the hero of one of his best stories (Luke 10:30–37). And he seemed ok being called a Samaritan himself but resisted the “demon-possessed” taunt that accompanied that accusation (John 8:48–49).  

Chimamanda Adichie says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Martin Brooks of Peace Catalyst International says in contrast, “Bringing nuance and complexity to the stories of others is both honoring and humanizing.” 

This brings us to today and the single story blunder we too often make with Muslims.  

How too many Americans tend to view Muslims

I want to be careful in how I say this, but if we’re not thoughtful and intentional, we’ll tend to view Muslims through the lens of a single story:  

Muslims are trouble.  

That story may be rooted in the honest-to-goodness troublesome things some Muslims actually do, but it is amplified, honed, and embedded in our collective psyche by its incessant, almost exclusive repetition. 

Movies and contemporary fiction strengthen the single story. Can you recall an Arab in a recent film who wasn’t snarling and waving a weapon? And sadly, Christians sometimes contribute to the prevalence of this story through books, sermons, radio, and social media posts that more often stir up anger and angst rather than the love Jesus abundantly directed to those outside the faith.  

There are many facets that synthesize to form the single story that Muslims are trouble: 

  • Muslims are terrorists.
  • Muslims oppress women.
  • Muslims, all of the real ones, want to kill Christians and Jews.
  • Muslims ceaselessly kill other Muslims.
  • Muslims are allowed to deceive Christians.
  • Muslims shoot at our sons and daughters.
  • Muslims migrate to our country and don’t follow the rules.
  • Muslims want to take over the world.
  • Muslims threaten Israel. 

Do you find yourself reading that list and saying, “But wait. Those are true.” 

Some of them are true about some Muslims, and, having been repeated, somewhat in the doing and much in the telling, they’ve become stereotypes. Let me repeat Adichie: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” 

There is so much more to the Muslim story than that list.

Real Muslims, real Christians

In 2002, I moved into a densely Muslim town in northern England. We were still unloading the truck when my new Pakistani neighbor strode up the sidewalk, extended his hand, and said, “My name is Khalid. You need anything, anything, you ask me!” 

His wife followed up that welcome the next day with a family-sized bowl of glorious curry!  

Of course, you can find an anecdote to suit any purpose, but here are some facts:  

Muslims number over 1.7 billion people! If they were all trouble, you wouldn’t be reading this interesting article; you’d be sweeping up the ashes of your house! Of course, no one actually thinks they’re all trouble, but the seduction of the single story directs our thinking to that conclusion. For far too many Americans, that’s the de facto way we think.

Additionally, with a group that size, there’s bound to be significant diversity and subgroups. Even though some Muslims work hard to support an idea of global unity, it’s just not reality. Muslims are divided by, among other things, language (most Muslims don’t speak Arabic), ethnicity, sect, orthodoxy, diligence of religious practice, the way they pray, dress, accommodate differences, celebrate holidays, treat women, and in their active commitment to Islam taking over the world.  

Think about us: the world of people who call themselves “Christian” is fascinating in its diversity. From one side to another, the differences are so vast as to render groups on the other side unrecognizable. “But wait, those people aren’t real Christians.” 

That’s exactly what Muslims say.  

In the midst of that diversity, there are Muslims who are trouble. There are Muslims who are evil. There are a few for whom I’ve personally prayed, “Father, change their heart or end their lives.” (To be clear, that’s a prayer God is unlikely to honor!). 

But is there a way we can get beyond looking at the whole lot as trouble?  

3 ways to see Muslims for who they are

Here are three ways to begin that process. 

1. Ask the Father to help you see Muslims the way he sees them. 

That’s a good thing to ask about everything, but let’s focus just now on Muslims. What does God see? 

For starters, someone made in his image. Let that roll around for a minute: Muslims are image-bearers of God. He likes them. Jesus died for them. He probably thinks Arabic is cool, but not so cool as to be the exclusive language of heaven. 

And I’d bet good money the marriage feast of the Lamb will feature the best baklava ever! 

Father, give us your thoughts, your dreams, your love for Muslims, both near to us and far away.  

2. Broaden your reading and watching. 

I recently loved the memoir The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. Watching The Visitor made me laugh and nearly cry. You can also gain a certain kind of insight by watching Muslim comics on YouTube. Check out the first minute of Rami Youseff on Colbert. (The rest of his set is funny, too, but might step on some toes!)

3. Meet a few Muslims. 

A relationship triple-trumps a news report and pretty much obliterates a Facebook post. If your means permit, visit a Muslim country. I cherish the time I’ve spent in Jordan, Turkey, Malaysia, and among Muslims living in Mumbai, Amsterdam, and northern England. 

Denison Forum Editorial Director Blake Atwood said that he “went to Morocco for a week in my twenties and had certain assumptions about that Muslim country. I left thinking they were the nicest people I’d ever met.”

If means, or discretion, prevent a vacation in Morocco, google a Middle Eastern or Turkish restaurant or grocery and give it a try. Depending on where you live, the drive may be long or short. Most likely, it’s shorter than it was a couple of years ago and longer now than it will be next year. 

Go prepped to ask a couple of low-key questions and experiment. God will probably use the time to expand the single story you’ve been hearing for a while. 

And there’s always the chance you’ll get invited over to dinner! If you do, remember: It’s not a trick. It’s legit hospitality. 

Go! 

Take flowers. 

Enjoy.

Finally, let’s be honest: we’re not going to directly shift the global geopolitical order, right? So join me in taking a break from fretting about it and get to know a Muslim or two. Give God a chance to add some data to the “Muslims are trouble” single story so prevalent today.  

Note: If I can help you in your or your church’s efforts to connect with Muslims, please let me know. If you need some great ideas about how to connect with Muslims, sign up for my super short weekly email and get “Ten Simple Ways Normal People Can Be Nice to Muslims” for free.