Not All Muslims Speak Arabic

There are some stereotypes that people throw around like the plague but the weird thing is that some of these are spot-on. Like the whole thing about Southeast Asian food and the spice levels–as a proud Pakistani-American, I can vouch that our food is generally pretty spicy and sometimes it's hard to tell where the layer of food ends and the layer of oil begins. Sure, you're going to find the Indo-Pak person who doesn't like spicy food but it's a big world and the thing about stereotypes is that they're generalizations, which means there are going to be exceptions.

But there's one stereotype that gets thrown out there more frequently than others and that's that I speak Arabic. I don't know what it is exactly that leads people to make that assumption. I've seen Arab people and I definitely don't fit the general external mold (at the risk of sounding rather generalizing myself). Yes, I am Muslim. Yes, I wear a hijab or a scarf. But what relation that has to me speaking Arabic I cannot possibly deduce.

Now, I might see a person who appears to have Hispanic roots, but I think I would double and triple-think it before flat-out saying that the person speaks Spanish. A lot of my Indian friends actually can't speak Hindi even though their parents and entire extended family are fluent. And some of them don't speak Hindi at all but speak Tamil or some other language spoken in northern India.

There's a reason the U.S. doesn't have an official language even though English is the most frequently spoken language. We have a lot of people and even though it's harmless enough, it makes me wonder if I should somehow know Arabic. I've even had close friends tell me laughingly about some time they were baffled at being confronted with some Arabic speaker and I have to admit that I actually cannot speak Arabic myself.

Once, at my student teaching placement site, this woman came up to me and asked, rather desperately, if I could help her out. A couple who had recently immigrated wanted to enroll their children but could not understand English and the school did not have anyone who could act as an Arabic translator. Shame-facedly, I revealed that I knew absolutely no Arabic and the woman seemed puzzled but thankfully didn't ask me to elaborate.

Do I wish I could speak Arabic? You bet— just like I wish I could learn Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, Spanish, French and countless other languages. But I can't and when people tie language to my religion, it makes me feel rather awkward because knowing language has, to me, never been a prerequisite to being firm in my faith. I do my pillars and prayers and all the other things that are important to me as a Muslim but if being fluent in Arabic had been necessary to being Muslim, I would probably be in over my head. So the next time, you're looking for an Arabic translator, you might have as good a chance asking the girl next to the Hijabi who actually studied it or the guy in front who minored in the Arabic language.

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