Terrorism Fuels Stereotyping of Muslims


Having to Apologize for the Actions of Others

▼Editor’s note
We published this article in early 2015 in Japanese and French following the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris and the murder of two Japanese citizens taken captive by extremists in Syria late in 2014. It is especially timely today, as the world reels in the aftermath of the November 13 killing of more than 120 in Paris.

In the wake of terrorist attacks, Muslims face being treated en masse as fanatics even though our beliefs have nothing to do with these horrible actions. We are placed in a position, however, where we have to defend ourselves, and end up having to issue the standard reply that our religion is in fact a peaceful one and that the fanatical groups and their violent tactics have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. I am certainly not the only Muslim who has such feelings about the way we are expected to respond.

Earlier this year, in the wake of the attacks on the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the killing of Japanese hostages Gōto Kenji and Yukawa Haruna by Daesh, the self-described Islamic State, I sought to find out more about how the events impacted the Islamic community in Japan and gauge the future. To do so I asked Muslim acquaintances in Japan if they felt recent the terrorist attacks and the killing of Japanese hostages will have a negative impact on Muslims living in Japan.

Here are some of the responses that I received:

“When I tell someone my name is Mohammed, people tend to hesitate for a moment because this reveals that I am a Muslim.” (30-year-old student)

“An older man in my neighborhood, after greeting me with his usual Konbanwa [good evening], said that Islamic countries are really scary and that he hopes Muslims don’t enter Japan.” (42-year-old company employee)

A Distorted View of Islam

Other responses that I received were a bit more nuanced, much like my own view. For example, one of the people I interviewed said:

“What’s really scary is the terrible influence that stereotyping can have. In the course of their daily lives, people rely on stereotyped thinking as a way of grasping situations. These stereotypes are used for understanding individuals or a whole country. So I think recent incidents will have a huge influence in shaping the image that Japanese people have of Islam and of Arab people.”

As you can see, I received a variety of responses. But what seems clear from the current situation is a growing negative reaction in Japan or phobia against Islam, which gives me a considerable sense of unease. I have the feeling that people are adopting the simplistic view that Islam is not a peaceful religion.

A Nonviolent Tenet of Islam

The media has played a role in fostering an antipathy to Islam and portraying it as a radical belief. The coverage in newspapers and on TV and radio, in using terms like “radical Islamic thought,” “Islamic fundamentalism,” and “holy war,” gives the impression that Islam promotes terrorist organizations. At the same time, the media makes almost no effort to introduce the ideas from the Koran that are at the core of the Islamic faith. For instance, Chapter 5, Verse 32, of the Koran clearly states:

“Whoever killed a person, it would be as if he killed the whole of mankind; and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of mankind.”

The meaning of this passage, in other words, is that if a person kills just one person, it is akin to killing everyone—all of humanity. The act of killing, regardless of the ideological motivations, can never be justified, even in the case of a single life taken. This is no scale for measuring murder: all murderers are grouped together. The media, however, does not make any reference to this Islamic belief.

Judging Islam from Books and Their Covers

Getting back to the issue of stereotyping, it is worthwhile to consider that a stereotype is characterized by the belief that everyone sharing certain attributes—such as nationality, race, or gender—is identical to each other.

It has become impossible for people to rapidly and accurately process the flood of information encountered each day. To assess this deluge, people sort information in relation to predetermined categories. In other words, there is a cognitive framework that is usually in place in which we process information on the basis of stereotyping. Moreover, this is a process that takes place unconsciously.

The information that leads to stereotyping is certainly not limited to television and other media outlets. On my way home, I pass by a number of bookstores, and some of them have special sections set up featuring books on Islamic countries, since these books have been selling well lately.

Anyone passing by those displays will, almost instantaneously, pick up two pieces of visual information. The first is that the terrifying masked person so often displayed on the cover of books is a Muslim. The other takeaway is that Islam is scary, shocking, and radical. And so a person’s mental folder containing information on Islam is updated with yet more negative imagery.

The question of the degree to which people in a particular country trust (or are taken in by) the media has been illustrated in comparative data. According to the findings of four research firms inside and outside Japan, including the Nippon Research Center and Gallup, among advanced economies Japan far and away has a stronger trust of the media and is more likely to accept the viewpoint it portrays. The British populace, meanwhile, was most skeptical, with just 14% trusting the media. Among other advanced countries (including Russia) the level of trust is somewhere between 20% and 35%, apparently.

Judging for Yourself—Not Relying on Preconceptions

The term stereotype is actually a relatively modern creation, coined by the American journalist Walter Lippmann. In his 1922 book Public Opinion, Lippmann writes:

“For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.”

The murder of Japanese hostages and atrocities committed by the so-called Islamic State have created a fear of Islam that persists in Japan to this day. Even though Islamophobia has not reached the level seen in European countries, the view of Islam as something scary is indeed spreading in Japanese society.

Instead of seeing the world and making decisions on the basis of preconceived definitions or a priori decisions, it is important for people to arrive at their definitions and decisions on the basis of seeing and feeling things for themselves and investigating the issue. I sincerely hope that we will all strive to take that approach.

(Originally published in Japanese on February 26, 2015. Banner photograph: Tokyo Camii mosque in the Yoyogi Uehara neighborhood, set against the backdrop of the skyscrapers of Shinjuku.) 

Paris Islam Islamophobia terror Charlie Hebdo Mohammed stereotype IS