Dear David Leopold, there’s more than one kind of Muslim.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of appearing on MSNBC for the first time to discuss politics — but was confronted with an all too common occurrence — the attitude that anything that deals with Muslims affects all Muslims. This stereotype that we’re all the same is the type of problem that has plagued us for decades — preventing the advancement of dialogue and keeping real Muslim issues out of the conversation.

Saturday, on MSNBC, David Leopold and I were discussing the president’s performance so far and the challenges of the Executive Order that made Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen — face a 90-day visa suspension. When I brought up the issue that many of the Gulf countries have taken similar steps, David responded with “So they can be discriminatory too” which made me comment that he didn’t seem to know anything about Muslims — to which he gave the expected “I understand a lot about a lot of people”.

If he understood “lots of people” then he wouldn’t have thrown out a standard stereotypical statement used to defend dumb things said about “minorities”.

So let’s shed a little light on the issue.

So Who are Muslims?

Fun fact 1: Muslims come in Black.

I live in Harlem, which is home to Senegalese, Somali, Nigerian, Ghanan Muslims, as well as a broader diaspora of African and Arab Muslims. More importantly, it’s home to the American Black Muslim community which has roots dating back to the 1910s. Many slaves brought to America were also Muslim — which I can cover in more detail in another article.

Fun Fact 2: Most Muslims aren’t Arab

American Muslims by Origin (US Census bureau) image courtesy of Wikipedia

Since the 1960s, The rhetoric in media and film has romanticized and demonized the “Arab” as the only Muslim that you see and know. This gets taken a degree further by TV shows like “24" and “Homeland” but is not only wrong — it’s not representative of either of the American Muslim or the global Muslim population.

In America, 34% of Muslims are South Asian (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) and 25% are Black or African — only 26% of American Muslims are Arab.

Globally Arabs make up a smaller percentage of Muslims than Asians, South Asians and Africans — with 62% or 683 million Muslims in Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

So when people talk about issues that deal with Muslims it’s better for them to actually discuss the issues in regards to their relation or impact to a specific group or ethnicity that also happens to be Muslims.

Irish Catholics and Italian Catholic’s didn’t see eye to eye and really intermarried until the 1980s. Looking at all Muslims as belonging to one group — or having one opinion — or practicing religion exactly same is about is convoluted as someone saying all Italians are Irish.

This may also help you understand why an issue that pertains to a certain group of Muslims will be a far less or no concern for another group of Muslims.

South Asian Muslims, particularly those from India and Pakistan may be concerned about conflicts in Kashmir, while Jordanian and Iraqi Muslims would be concerned about conflict in Syria. However, the Iraqis and Jordanians may not care at all about Kashmir while the Pakistanis and Indians may not care at all about Syria.

When this comes to issues of country national security or regional terrorism Nigerian Muslims would be concerned about Boko Haram and ISIS but no absolutely nothing about Jammat Islammiyah. Whereas Indonesian Muslims would worry about Jammat Islammiyah and may have heard about ISIS.

Fun Fact 3: We have the same Faith, but we practice Islam differently

The same way that you have a division between Catholics and protestants within Christianity we have a division between Sunnis and Shias in Islam. Beyond these basic divisions, we have splits based on religious schism (madhab) or “schools of thought”. These are complicated historical schools that studied the Quran and Hadith and gave rulings on religion and practice that lead to the different ways Muslims practice today. The primary schools of thought are:

Hanafi (Sunni)

Maliki (Sunni)

Shafi’i (Sunni)

Hanbali (Sunni)

Ja`fari (Ismaili) (Shia)

Zaidiyyah (Shia)

Ibadiyyah

Zahiriyah

So to put this in plain English — The same way that someone who belongs to Church of Christ to looks at a Baptist as less religious than them — is the same way that a Sunni Hanafi person might look at a Sunni Maliki person as religiously different than them. Now add to this that Sunnis and Shias look at each other completely differently and do not typically attend each other’s mosques. Then add one more dimension to this which is that these religious madhab are also divided along ethnic lines.

So to help you understand this even more clearly a Muslim person who happens to be Sunni Hanbali and Saudi may not want to attend the same mosque as someone who is Sunni Hanafi and Pakistani. Then add to this that Sunnis and Shias typically do not live in the same communities; worship together in the same mosques or interact.

Oh, and there are huge ethnic and racial divides within the Muslim community where Arabs will not talk to South Asians and South Asians won’t talk to blacks.

In essence, the entire Muslim community could be simply understood as a large group of different Protestant communities that believe in the same faith but do not practice or look at religion the same way as the church down the street from them does. And if you were to pretend that every single one of these churches had a sports team and a rivalry with the church down the street — then you’ve got a good picture of how the differing ethnic groups within the Muslim diaspora interact with each other.

Not so Fun Fact 4: Terrorism is a bigger problem for Muslims than you can imagine

Back to one of the issues that prompted me to write this piece is the challenge of terrorism. Beyond the complicated diversity of the Muslim diaspora is the complicated issue of terrorism.

Over the past three decades, more Muslims have been the victim of terrorism — delivered at the hands of cults like ISIS, Boko Haram and Jammat Islammiyah, as well as terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, the Taliban and now syndicated terrorist groups like Waliyat Khurasan, that was recently dubbed ISIS-K.

Fighting terror is also a far more complicated game across the Middle East and Asia — complicated by challenges of information sharing and individual country dynamics. Add to this regional tensions and you end up with a complicated landscape where closing doors is simply less risky than opening them.


In America, Muslims have a heritage where we come from over 77 countries and comprise a complicated tapestry of people who believe differently, have different ethnicities and dramatically different cultures. We don’t see eye to eye on issues and often don’t interact across different sects, races, cultures and ethnicities.

Globally, it’s even more complicated. Global Muslims don’t see eye to eye on local issues let alone international issues and our relationships with one another are often strained by politics and differences of faith. So perhaps instead of taking to blanket stereotypes that should be thrown out with backwards thinking — because of the Irish and Italians aren’t the same — why would you think that 1.6 billion people who speak over 143 different languages would have more than a shared religion in common?