Them and Us – the power of prejudice.

Nov 07

Pope Benedict XVI said: ‘Peace begins with a look of respect that recognises in another man’s face a person, regardless of the colour of his skin, nationality, language or religion.’’ That is the kind of unity that I think we should be aiming for, and we need to start with ourselves.

I want to begin with discussing the concept of solidarity with those we identify with and how it leads to prejudices against those who we don’t. And then look at prejudices of other people – and prejudices held by ourselves. Look at tell-tale signs – could I be prejudiced? Could you be?  What does Islam teach us about prejudice? Is it such a bad thing to be prejudiced? And- because I personally always want to leave a talk with some action steps for changing some aspect of my life or for thinking about things differently- I want to look at how can we stop being prejudiced?

 (1)  Solidarity can lead to prejudice

`Asabiyya (Arabic: عصبية, ʻaṣabīya) is used by Ibn Khaldun to refer to social solidarity with an emphasis on unity, group consciousness and sense of shared purpose.

So with the concept of Asabiyya, the emphasis is on unity – but the question is who are we feeling unity with? Is it unity with just our immediate family, unity with those from our country, maybe unity with those who speak like us in the same accent, or is it simply unity with people who are like us? Often in the masjid I hear appeals for unity with the Muslim community/ummah, although I am never sure exactly what that means – it is hard to get two people to be united on an issue, let alone over a billion. If we are united by the act of supplication or dua, of course this is immensely powerful. But if we are looking to be united as an ummah, it is all too easy to then extrapolate this to suggest we are united AGAINST another group or community. Too often this term Asabiyyah is a negative word, as it can suggest loyalty to one’s group regardless of circumstances.

That loyalty can then lead us to being prejudiced against those who are not in our group. Prejudice is an opinion, prejudgment, or attitude about a group or its individual members. Prejudice is often accompanied by fear, ignorance, or hatred.

Hadith: ‘’Whoever possesses in his heart ‘Asabiyyah (prejudice in any of its forms such as tribalism, racism, or nationalism) even to the extent of a mustard seed, God will raise him on the Day of Resurrection with the unbelieving Bedouins of the Pre-Islamic era.” – Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny)


(2)  Prejudices people hold

 a)    Other people have prejudices

About other groups of people –in a discussion on Rhino poaching earlier this week, a woman said directly to me:  ‘’the Chinese, they just aren’t normal’. Really? A billion not normal? Whose normal would that be?

About their own group – a black person has told me not to trust black people (well everyone except them) – they are all criminals; an American went out of her way to make sure she made non-American friends as she couldn’t stand being with Americans. Maybe you relate?

About Muslims:  When I became Muslim in the UK, 20 years ago: the general preconception about Muslims in the UK was that men have lots of wives and oppress all of them. Now it has changed to: they’re trying to change our way of life.

I have a Muslim convert friend with an Arabic-speaking husband whose non-muslim mother was on an aeroplane. Despite having a son in law who can read and speak Arabic, she was so panicked by being seated next to a man reading an Arabic newspaper that she asked the steward to see if they can take him off the plane. She was dismayed to hear that he had as much right to remain on the plane as she did.

It has got to the point where Baroness Warsi, a Muslim in the British cabinet has warned: ‘In the factory, where they’ve just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: “Not to worry, he’s only fairly Muslim”. ‘In the school, the kids say: “The family next door are Muslim but they’re not too bad”. And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burka, the passers-by think: “That woman’s either oppressed or is making a political statement”.’

You may be aware that recently a British soldier was murdered in South London recently while in civilian clothes by two British Muslim men quoting the Quran.  This criminal act by just 2 people has affected how many others perceive over 2 million Muslims – as one monolithic community generally intent on causing terror. Various British Muslim organisations have rushed to condemn the attack – and the Muslim community have subsequently been asked to do more to rein in their – or should I say our, extremists. Fully two thirds of British people now believe Muslims are incompatible with the British way of life, whatever that means.

These perceptions are not only in England. More than 4 in 10 Americans (43%) admit to feeling at least “a little” prejudice toward Muslims – more than twice the number who say the same about Christians (18%), Jews (15%) and Buddhists (14%). (Gallup 2010 – before the Boston bombings where Muslims were implicated)

‘(Lyrics from Rodgers and Hammerstein) “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, You’ve got to be taught from year to year. You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, Before your’ six or seven or eight, You’ve got to be carefully taught.”’ Right here in Johannesburg, my daughter age 6 was accused by an eight year old boy of being a tourist. When she went back to the boy to find out what he was talking about, he explained he was actually calling her ‘’terrorist’’ – and then when I subsequently asked him why he was saying that, he said he was just repeating what he had heard his dad say.


b) What about our own prejudices

–          We have looked at how what start as a unifying concept of asabiyyah can be negative, as it suggests loyalty to one’s group regardless of circumstances

–          We have looked at how other people can be prejudiced.

–          But is it possible that we might be prejudiced ourselves?


  • Could you have prejudices?

If you are not sure if you have prejudices or not, there are a few signs that you can look out for.

  1. If someone has an accent (either regional or foreign), you find yourself inadvertently thinking they’re lower class, less educated, incompetent, etc.
  2. If a woman or minority is in a leading position, you question if he/she got the position through affirmative action, illicit favours, or other means besides pure merit.
  3. If you find yourself invited to a neighbourhood or gathering that mostly has people of a different race or culture, you feel nervous, are more cautious with your belongings, etc.
  4. If you see a mixed-race or mixed-culture couple, you feel discomfort, you look down on them, or you feel anger, etc.
  5. You believe that stereotypes are often based in truth – after all, that is how they become stereotypes in the first place.
  6. You believe that some ethnicities or cultures are inferior to others. If a group of people is experiencing problems, they most likely brought it on themselves.

–          We need to confront our own thoughts: Do we find ourselves ever thinking: All Chinese people are, ‘All White people are…All Jews are…All Nigerians are…or even ‘ The West is’

–          Many Muslims have a lot to say about ‘the West’. Firstly, who are the west? Aren’t we in South Africa as West as Europe? Do we perhaps mean the North? Regardless, I have read and heard frequently about how Islam has given us rights that the West didn’t have until recently, and so our faith is clearly much better. I have read in books written by Muslims how the West has so many social problems (such as abortion, single parenthood, and alcohol abuse) which would all be solved by Islam. But we know that our Islamic faith is practised by individuals – and some individuals live by those principles, some don’t, and some do their best to live by some of them. Meanwhile too many women continue to get abused within the marriage and raped outside it, whether of the Muslim faith, another faith, or of no faith.  Is it really fair to compare the West as a whole to the theoretical principles of our faith? And aren’t there many millions of Muslims living in the west -or the north- anyway? How can we generalise about the West?

–          And many muslims have a lot to say about other muslims – I have overheard some say: ‘Be careful of the Nigerians, they steal your shoes at the mosque’; ‘I don’t want to wear hijab in case I get mistaken for an Indian woman’; ‘You should stay clear of white convert women as you can’t trust their past’; or: ‘you converts know more about our religion than we do as you have actively chosen the faith.’ The truth about that particular prejudice is that converts to Islam are just individuals – some have extensive knowledge about Islam, some don’t, and some are in-between.

(3)  What does Islam teach us?

We have talked about Ibn Khaldun’s concept of Asabiyya as solidarity, and how this can end up as a negative concept if it entails solidarity against other communities.

‘Asabiyyah is one of the first and greatest sins to ever be committed, for it is a sin of Satan. Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) said, “Verily, the angels counted Satan as one of themselves, and it was in the knowledge of God that he was not of them; then he spoke out whatever was inside of him, out of anger, and said: ‘You created me of fire and him [Adam] you created of clay.'”

We have looked at prejudices other people may hold, and hopefully while I have been talking you have been thinking whether it is possible you may hold any prejudices yourself.

The Qur’an and hadith are pretty clear on the negative aspects of arrogance about your own group and prejudice towards those in other groups.

Sûrah al Hujurât 49:11-12 “O You, who have attained to faith! No men shall deride other men: it may well be that those whom they deride are better than themselves; and no women shall deride other women, it may well be that those whom they deride are better than themselves. And neither shall you defame one another, nor insult one another by epithets (name-calling); evil is all imputation of iniquity after faith; and they who do not repent – it is they who are evil-doers. O You who have attained to faith! Avoid most guesswork (about one another) for behold some of guesswork is sin, and do not spy upon one another, and neither allow yourselves to speak ill of one another behind their backs…”


(4)  But why is prejudice such a bad thing?

After all, prejudice about a certain group can be helpful if, as a result of our prejudice, we consider ourselves in an unsafe situation so take more care of our belonging etc.

But it can create several main problems:


We are unreasonable if we judge others negatively without evidence or in spite of positive evidence or use stereotypes without allowing for individual differences. We are unreasonable when we do not see beyond our own limited, preconceived ideas.

And that lack of reason leads to simplification of issues. It means that a non-muslim who is prejudiced against muslims doesn’t need to go to a mosque to know what they think about muslims. They don’t need to think about women who have become heads of states in Muslim countries, or about the democracies of non-secular Muslim countries like Iran or Malaysia. They don’t need to do any of that, because they think they know all about how Muslims view women and democracies. The truth would just complicate the situation. Generalising is a short cut to explaining things, but that short cut can be wrong. How can all of any particular group be the same when we know from our own experience that even two children raised in the same family by the same parent are not the same?


We are unjust when we give preferential treatment to one group over another. We are unjust if we discriminate and pay men more for the same work as women.  We are unjust when we favour one nation over another. We are unjust when we think people’s lives from our country are worth more than other’s lives. And those in power can of course have the most impact with their prejudices.

Intolerance: We are intolerant if we reject or dislike people because they are different, whether they are of a different religion, different socioeconomic status, froma different country, or have a different set of values. And that intolerance can ultimately result in violence. A helpline called Faith matters which registers incidents against Muslims found that calls increased from a daily average of six before the attack to over 40 a day in the days immediately afterwards. And I am sure we are all aware of the current spate of xenophobic violent attacks sadly happening here against foreign nationals.

And, last but not least, it is described as a major sin. ”Whoever possesses in his heart ‘Asabiyyah (prejudice in any of its forms such as tribalism, racism, or nationalism) even to the extent of a mustard seed, God will raise him on the Day of Resurrection with the unbelieving Bedouins of the Pre-Islamic era.” – Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny). Another narration from the Prophet shows that ‘Asabiyyah is a fatal sin for both the one who commits it and the one who knowingly benefits from it: “The one who exerts ‘Asabiyyah or the one on whose behalf it is exerted, the tie of faith is taken off his neck.” This is in line with the consequences of other greater sins like backbiting – not only is a backbiter a sinner, but the ones who hear it and allow it to take place are also sinners.


(5)  How can we stop being prejudiced?

Putting an end to the negative consequences of ‘Asabiyyah begins with each of us.

  • To overcome others prejudice…we need to be the best we can be. We can never know whose perceptions we are able to change. Just know that unfortunately, sometimes, despite our very best efforts, this can simply result in ‘You’re ok but the others…’
  •  When we witness ‘Asabiyyah against ourselves or others, we must speak up and prevent it whenever possible. And where we can, we should avoid hanging around people who show prejudice.
  •  But most importantly, we need to work on ourselves. When we have ideas about other people without having had meaningful first hand exposure, and then later we meet a real live one, we need to recognise what baggage and preconceptions we have, and adjust them in the light of what you see. We can’t blame our childhood influences or the media.
  •  We need to acknowledge the real differences between and amongst us. And we need to develop the habit to discover, acknowledge and celebrate that which we have in common. It may even be our ‘’difference’’ that we have in common. As someone who has unfortunately caused my parents quite significant pain a while back through my decision to embrace Islam, I am suddenly united with all those whose life choices are not in line with what their parents would want for them. After all, if we can recognise this commonality with other people who are dealing with difference, we might even find ourselves in a majority.
  •  We need to respect others. Many people of all faiths and none say they live by the principle ’do as you would be done by; or do unto others as you would have done to you’. But this may not be what the others consider respectful. In fact, it is more respectful to do to others as they would like to be treated, and it is prejudiced of us to think that our way is the only way – or at least the best one.
  • We need to actively pursue opportunities to mix with people of different backgrounds socially. The greatest cause of prejudice is the narrowness of our own social circles. Lawyers hang out with lawyers, Wealthy people tend to hang out with wealthy people.  We need to cultivate our curiosity about strangers. We need to nurture the art of conversation, just like a child, who will naturally talk to people and ask them all sorts of questions.
  •  Finally, we need to ask God for guidance and help in removing the negative aspect of ‘Asabiyyah, keeping it from polluting our heart, damaging our community, and affecting world politics.


In conclusion:

Mandela said: ‘We must work for the day when we, as South Africans, see one another and interact with one another as equal human beings and as part of one nation, united, rather than torn asunder, by its diversity’. Actually, I think we should work for the day when all of us, South African or not, as part of one humanity, are united by our diversity.

Pope Benedict XVI said: ‘Peace begins with a look of respect that recognises in another man’s face a person, regardless of the colour of his skin, nationality, language or religion.’’ That is the kind of unity that I think we should be aiming for, and we need to start with ourselves.


One comment

  1. William Vanderput /

    I was looking for a book in the Singapore National Library and I came across your book Welcome to Islam. Reading the first chapter of the book I noticed that you had a curiosity about Islam and ultimately embraced it. Anyway to cut a long story short for now and to come to the point, I wonder if you ever bothered to study other religions before you made your decision, in particularly the very religion you were brought up in i.e. Christianity. In fact I will go as far as to say that you don’t even have a clue what Christianity is all about, and that goes for Islam too. Because if you had, things would be very different for you now.

    Now I am beginning to sound bias, but let me try and give a quick explanation. I am a 66year old Christian. Like you I was brought in a Christian household, but I said why am I a Christian just because of that, why I can I not be of another religion or just a plain atheist.

    So I looked up books on other religions and tapered my thoughts down to the three God fearing religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I could not buy into the arguments of the other religions and atheisim. Then using Christianity as a yard because I knew it best, I further tapered it down to the last two, Christianity and Islam.

    Staying in Singapore I had the benefit to look at other religions even without reading too much about them, including Judaism and Islam. Anyway, I ultimately stayed a Christian.

    I went online and had debates with people who were criticising and ridiculing Christianity and that included muslims. I am no great debater or even a great authority on Christianity and Islam. But observing arguments between other better equipped Christians taking on the critics, they obliterated all the others including the muslims.

    Anyway, to conclude, one muslim asked me how can God be three in one and added that God is too pure to come to earth. I answered him by first saying that you guys are the ones who go around shouting “Allah Akbar” God is Great. Was it not God that created the earth so how can it affect him in any way, but coming down to earth as Jesus Christ the whole intention was to experience life as his own creation and feel the ills of man otherwise why bother to come down to earth as man in the first place, otherwise he would have just created robots. Secondly, if God is great as you guys say, why can’t he create himself in three forms, or four or five for that matter. This guy did not exactly concede defeat, but he did agree that I had a good point.

    God gave us free will and Christianity upholds that and it is through our faith in God that we survive, to make things simple. Islam puts a lot of obstructions in the way and basically forces us into submission, that is not God.

    I wish you all the best and thanks for letting me say this piece.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *