5 Things NEVER to Say to Muslim Coworkers

"I didn't know you were Arab." Find out what other culturally insensitive comments people make to colleagues of the Islamic faith.

With Ramadan–the holiest month on the Islamic calendar–beginning, issues of religious accommodation and cultural competency may come up in your workplace. That’s because Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States. To help you avoid offending Muslim colleagues now and throughout the year, here are five things not to say.

Want to read more in-depth information on religion in the workplace? Visit our diversity-management website, BestPractices.DiversityInc.com. For best practices and legal advice on religion in the workplace, check out our webinar on faith.

1. “Why can’t Muslims decide when Ramadan starts?

Since the Islamic calendar is lunar, Ramadan is determined by the sighting of the new moon, which varies from year to year. And like other faiths, there are interpretational differences in beliefs. “In America, there are two groups of Muslims: The first believes you can use scientific data to determine when a new moon can be sighted, and thus you can predetermine the month,” says Nadir Shirazi, creator of “The Ramadan Guide for the Workplace.” The second group, he says, “believes that you must sight the new crescent moon with the naked eye.” So the start/end dates of Ramadan, depending on the practices of Muslims in your workplace, may be different. Providing flexible hours and allowing floating holidays will permit employees of Islamic and other faiths to celebrate their holidays without using all their vacation time.

2. “Why can’t you eat today?”

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast during daytime hours, so scheduling office parties, fall festivals and luncheon meetings at that time “puts a Muslim coworker on the spot [and] can be embarrassing for both parties,” explains Shirazi.

Education and consideration are key. “The ideal thing is don’t schedule office parties during these times,” says Niham Awad, founding member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest civil-liberties organization for American Muslims, based in Washington, D.C. “The least thing employers can do is don’t force employees to attend these parties, with all the food and drink, while fasting.”

3. “But you don’t look/dress like a Muslim.”

With an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, to think all look and dress similarly is a stereotype. “All Muslims do not have long beards or wear white robes or hijabs,” explains Imam Hamad Ahmad Chebli of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey (ISCJ), a nonprofit religious, charitable and educational organization in South Brunswick, N.J. “That’s the image people see on CNN.” In reality, Islam principle specifically states that there’s no compulsion in faith. Conversely, asking a Muslim woman why she doesn’t cover her body in a black niqab or drapery is equally inappropriate. “Islam is very much a personal and private religion,” says Afia Mirza, a DiversityInc intern who is Muslim.

4. “I didn’t know you were Arab.”

This is another culturally insensitive comment. The reason: Only about 20 percent of Muslims worldwide are Middle Eastern. “Muslims are Black. Muslims are white. Muslims are senators … they’re in the White House,” says Chebli. (According to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, three senior leaders in the U.S. government who are Muslim include: Dalia Mogahed, senior analyst and executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies; Ebrahim “Eboo” Patel, founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core [Mogahed and Patel are on the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships]; and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.) According to the American Religious Identification Survey, 10 percent of Muslims are Latino, 15 percent are white, 27 percent are Black and 34 percent are Asian.

5. “Why can’t you pray on your coffee break?”

Depending on the times allowed for office breaks, this comment can violate religious rights. That’s because “Muslim prayer must be done within specific time frames,” says Awad, adding that the second and third prayers are during business hours. What’s more, Muslim prayer involves standing up and bowing on the floor, which can be awkward to perform in the workplace. It’s also preferred that prayer be done in a group. Progressive companies will designate a private room or other facility for group prayer. On Fridays, when Muslims are obligated to pray in mosques and not in the office, “companies must give an extended lunch hour,” explains Awad. Companies such as Ford Motor Co., No. 44 in The 2010 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity, are involving their interfaith-based employee-resource group to help give members space to share experiences and ideas of religious accommodation.

“These are not only constitutional issues,” says Awad, “but when you have a friendly work environment, you will have better performing and more loyal employees.”


  • Rocher Bonilla

    What about Catholics?
    5 Things NEVER to Say to Catholic Coworkers?
    It been say anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice.

    • I suggest gathering information on that suject and bring it up to editor. Im sure it exist and have read about it. Discrimination towards muslims are more wide spread in America because there are many more new immigrants in America and far wider spread of Islamaphobia .

  • I really don’t see it, I think people tend to be very tolerant here, to be honest, much more than Muslims are of christianity in muslim countries.

    • Luke Visconti

      What were Christians doing 500 years ago? Spanish Inquisition. Islam is roughly 500 years younger than Christianity. Just saying. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • So by that reasoning Islam is off the hook for any practices the West doesn’t like for the next few centuries?


    in islamic theocracies and and muslim majority secular regimes (which are very rare these days) there’s is no tolerance for sensibilities of people of other faiths,women would not have a place or forum ,this is politically correct crap for the office place.i wouldn’t work in there mosques and i dont want to see them praying where i work and as for religious holidays they want respect for ramadan,tough feces, they dont want to hear merry christmas because their religion is superior and the koran says so……make no friends of Christians and Jews. …….lets not insult the adherents of islam in our midst we can just be insulted by their demands and actions,your diversity gives credence to politically correct perversity !!!!!!

    • Luke, please inform me, are there any nation-states besides the Vatican that even count as Christian theocracies? Also, the Vatican DOES tolerate and even sponsor inter-faith forums. Likewise, Christian majority secular regimes are actually quite common.

      By contrast, all Muslim majority countries are actually theocratic nation-states, save maybe Qatar and the United Arab Emirates… even those countries have uniquely Koranic laws in the judicial code. Is there a Christian version of the Mutaween? Is apostasy punished by death via special religious police in any countries that aren’t mostly Muslim?

      The general thrust of your reply is that Christianity and other religious groups could just as easily be criticized as Islam, right? That’s a fair statement, but your copy and paste reply, only exchanging “Christian/Christianity” for “Muslim/Islam” actually does produce more factual inaccuracies with regard to the predominate religion of various nation states and their laws.

      You bring up some good points when listing questions that one should avoid asking a Muslim co-worker. These embarrassing and awkward question are also unnecessary because the answers can be revealed with just a bit of epistemological due diligence.

      Here is a list of some questions that I’d find more interesting to ask a Muslim friend/co-worker. Please tell me what you think of the following questions, and if they should be avoided for any reasons:

      1. When you see a cartoonist or anyone else publish an image intended to be that of the prophet Muhammad, how does that make you feel?

      2. Are your opinions on ethics and morality primarily derived from the Koran?

      3. Do you believe the Koran to be an inerrant guide to ethical and moral behavior? If so, how do you feel about the passages in the Koran that glorify martyrdom, call for the death of infidels/apostics, and Muhammad’s repeated mandates to make all living humans practicing Muslims?

      -Adam, atheist

      • Luke Visconti

        Those aren’t good questions for a workplace, but here’s a question for you: The man who defeated Representative Cantor had this to say to Sean Hannity about his victory of a fraction of a percent of the eligible voting population: “I mean, it’s a miracle. First of all, I attribute it to God.” How does that make you feel? I’m nauseous. Here’s another nauseating quote: “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • I have a better idea,instead of coming to our country and telling us what not to say,why don’t you fuk off to somewhere you are actually welcome.that way we don’t have to worry about offending your hysterical thin skinned asses.this is not a muslim country,i would never go to Egypt and dictate to Egyptians what not to say around me as not to offend me.its that muslim arrogance that infuriates me.so take you hijab pajama wearing behinds to the desert where you belong,going to Europe or America will only ensure your slaughter when we start eliminating your asses.you can’t have my country ,not even a piece of it,all that you’ve built can be easily burned to the ground and that i’m afraid is your future.total destruction when god comes calling,not some pedophile on a donkey.{it starts with an m}diversity= white genocide.

    • Luke Visconti

      I’ve probably cut 100 similar posts to yours, but I’m in a good mood to respond to one today, so I picked yours. Here goes:

      First, read up on the Crusades, you dope. After President Bush called the illegal invasion of a sovereign Muslim country a “crusade,” we spent trillions deposing the CIA-installed head of Iraq and are currently imposing sanctions on the successor government to the CIA-installed Shah of Iran. Finally, did you know that before she was national security advisor and came up with the bogus evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Condoleeza Rice was on the board of Chevron and they named an oil tanker after her? Look at oil prices before and after we knocked Iraq’s production offline, asshat. Hundreds of thousands of noncombatants were killed to increase profits for the Koch brothers’ industry—not to mention the creep who used to be Vice President, the former CEO of Halliburton.

      We do plenty of meddling, and once in a while chickens come home to roost. Now go away and stop shilling for amoral billionaires, you pinhead bigot ignoramous. They wouldn’t step on your head to tee off at their country club. Wake the hell up and start thinking for yourself, you sheep. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • Luke Visconti

      I think the French pretty much perfected the guillotine—just a thought. If you find out the right way to inject poison, please call the authorities in Oklahoma. They need to know. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • shabbyhijabi

    I disagree with this 100%. The only question that may be offensive to someone is saying “I didn’t know you were Arab” if someone is not Arab. Many Muslims welcome these questions because we know how uneducated the majority of people are about Islam. Speaking as a Muslim who left Christianity for Islam, I say to everyone else who is not a racist or bigot and who has an open mind, ask your Muslim co-workers all the questions you may have. You’ll receive more truthful information about Islam than anyone would get in a life time by watching and believing local/global media. You’ll be surprised to know many Muslims will be more than happy to answer your questions.

  • Of all the nonsense here, the one that strikes me the most is # 2.
    Sure, let’s not have any lunch meetings or office parties for an entire month so we can be sensitive to the muslim population.

    How about, show up to the lunch meeting or get fired. Whether you eat or not is up to you.

    Also, it’s patty’s retirement party. Don’t want to eat? Fine. But be there and be smiling.

    What an insanely selfish, arrogant and moronic thing to suggest that an entire companies office cater (or, specifically not cater) to the religion of some of it’s employees.

    This kind of arrogance is the reason people are distrustful. It is the kind of arrogance from a religion which goes beyond heavy proselytizing and actually explicitly states that they have a desire to see the whole world muslim.

    Guess what? You don’t have to eat at parties or lunch meetings or, ya know, there are plenty of companies that will cater to your religion in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Sudan, etc. Go get a job there.

    • Luke Visconti

      Why are offices closed on Sunday? You’re a mighty big Internet warrior, big boy. What religion do you claim, smiley? First church of the inconsiderate? Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Since when has America been known for being considerate? Capitalism and considerate are two words that don’t go well together.
        You “cut” posts as to make this page read the way you want it to read and add what you insinuate to be facts to replies you post for the same purpose. Seems to me you are the “internet warrior”. Most people on here are able to see through your BS. Freedom of speech should be cherished, but it is people like you that are slowly trying to take it from the people all because you got your lil’ marshmallows hurt. You can’t say this…you can’t say that….why does everything have to be so PC now. Its bullshit. WTF is happening to our country. The truth: it’s not really about speech…it’s deeper. Speech is just one of the first side effects noticed when you try control, manipulate or take peoples thoughts away. The need for control also rears it’s ugly head in organized religion. It always has and always will….from extremist muslims in the middle east to the christian crusades from Europe after the turn of the first millennium to the political parties that use the bible belt to gain votes.
        I do realize this is a private page and you don’t have to acknowledge that right.
        Diversity? On this forum? What a joke. You make me sick…and obviously others too. I think I may have learned something here….you must have bought your degrees and/or diplomas at the thrift store.
        I worship the night sky BTW….you know….the place we really come from.

        • Luke Visconti

          Your hate is your problem; I don’t allow it to become my problem. You have all the freedom of speech as you can generate, but you mistakenly feel that I have some sort of responsibility to get up in the morning to benefit hate-filled perverts. Stormfront.org may be the place for you. Have fun over there, but it isn’t as much fun when you’re not frightening people, is it? Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

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