Islamophobia and the Mental Health of Muslim-Americans


It has become all too clear that Islamophobia is more than a buzzword, but a widespread discriminatory ideology that sees no difference between Muslim and terrorist. Turn on the news, and you’ll see a widely-known, pompous presidential candidate proposing a ban on Muslims, including those escaping violence and political unrest, from entering the country — to make America great again, of course. Turn to another channel, and you’ll see a political correspondent interviewing Americans who vow their support for this ‘much-needed’ proposal. Turn the channel again, and you’ll see that this presidential candidate is leading his opponents by a landslide in the latest polls. Turn the channel one last time, and you’ll see a Muslim woman kicked out of the presidential candidate’s rally after silently protesting Islamophobia.


Like many forms of discrimination, Islamophobia is embedded in our society’s most prominent institutions, including the government and media. Muslim-Americans have undergone intense racial profiling by government agencies, such as the NSA, while the New York Police Department surveilled mosques as “terrorism enterprise investigations” after being pressured by the Justice Department. Popular news outlets have also shared Islamophobic attitudes — Bill O’Reilly once exclaimed “Muslims killed us on 9/11”, failing to differentiate between Muslims and terrorists. The views of these large institutions — government and media — are diffusible, easily consumed by the unsuspecting and fulfilling the starving ignorance of the close-minded. In fact, an ABC/Washington Post poll has shown that only 37% of Americans have a favorable view of Muslims.   


As Islamophobic attitudes have become almost ingrained in our society’s consciousness, many Muslims in America have encountered widespread prejudice from Islamophobes — in both its subtle and overt forms. A few first-hand experiences are explained in a study entitled “Subtle and Overt Forms of Islamophobia: Microaggressions toward Muslim-Americans”. One of the Muslim subjects recounts an instance where a truck driver said “Say hi to Osama” to the subject’s mother. Another Muslim subject was once asked whether they ever hear anything about “when the next bombing’s going to be” at the mosque they attend. Verbal assaults of Muslims have also turned to violent attacks. Recently, a Muslim shopkeeper in Queens was beaten up by a customer, and mosques have been targeted by arsonists.


These prejudiced assaults against Muslims have a piercing impact on their health, particularly mental health. A 2005 study by the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) states that the chronic harassment that Muslims face in their daily lives “can increase the risk of common mental disorders.” Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that 82% of Muslim-Americans felt “extremely unsafe” after 9/11, and that prejudice may have contributed to the PTSD that some of subjects later developed. It makes perfect sense that discrimination against identity can have a negative impact mental health, as mental health issues in the Muslim community are inextricably linked to identity. In an interview with Huffington Post, Kameelah Rashad, a Muslim chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, stated that identity “comes up repeatedly” when Muslim students approach her about their mental health.


For many Muslim-Americans, forming an identity is a turbulent process. On the one hand, according to Rashad, Muslims who proudly express their religion fear that they will be associated with the extremist values of terrorists. Meanwhile, Muslims who are wrongly associated with terrorism by Islamophobes attempt to dissociate themselves from aspects of their religion to ‘fit in’. For instance, one subject of the study “Subtle and Overt Forms of Islamophobia: Microaggressions toward Muslim-Americans” changed their Arabic name to Sarah so that they wouldn’t be teased. Muslim-Americans are also dissociated from larger society. Even if Muslim-Americans grieve with fellow Americans, like after the tragic San Bernardino shooting, for instance, it isn’t viewed as genuine — instead, there is a constant pressure on Muslim-Americans to take ownership for the actions of the terrible individuals who commit terroristic acts. A dissociation from self, an association with an evil entity, a dissociation from larger society: our identity is in constant flux, a taxing push and pull on the mind.

Mental health in the Muslim community is as important an issue as ever, especially in a time where Islamophobic sentiment is so strong. Unfortunately, however, mental health issues in the Muslim community are not well-researched. Aasim Padela, a Muslim doctor and professor at the University of Chicago, did a search of 18 million research studies in medical journals between 1980 and 2009 and found that only 10 included the keywords “American,” “Muslim,” Islam,” “health care” and “health disparity.” A lack of information on the health of Muslim-Americans is troubling. Part of the difficulty in studying the Muslim-American population is that it’s so diverse — it’s made up US-born individuals, as well as foreign-born individuals from a variety of Asian and African countries.


Nonetheless, a lack of research can also be attributed to widespread Islamophobia. Islamophobia has become stitched into the fabric of many of our society’s institutions, perhaps even our health institutions, and it’s certainly possible that Islamophobic sentiment is (at times, unknowingly) perpetuated by them. In an interview with the University of Chicago, Padela states that his grants for research on the Muslim community have been rejected by funders because the Muslim community is “not an important enough population to look at.” Padela believes the lack of spending public health dollars on Muslims may be the result of some “unconscious bias or Islamophobia”. Otherwise, why would individuals from the second largest religion in the world not be an “important enough” population to study?


In addition to being sparsely researched, mental health in the Muslim community is also not appropriately treated by clinicians. According to the 2005 study by BUSM mentioned earlier, clinicians are often unaware of the prejudice and stress Muslim patients face in the everyday lives. Furthermore, another study explains that clinicians may not be fully accepting of their Muslim patient’s customs. For instance, “if a non-Muslim female psychologist assumes that a hijab is oppressive against women, she may unconsciously try to steer her client away from covering, instead of understanding the significance of the hijab in her Muslim client’s life.” Clinicians may unknowingly promote Western ideals, while rejecting Muslim customs that our society inherently views as deviant. Ultimately, it’s more stressful than relieving for a Muslim to discuss how Islamophobia affects their health with clinicians who also possess Islamophobic attitudes.  


According to Mona M. Amer, a professor of psychology at the American University of Cairo, the number of studies on the mental health of Muslims has increased since 9/11. Increased research indicates that this isn’t a hopeless situation. However, the problem persists — there is still a general lack of knowledge on the health of Muslims, largely due to Islamophobic attitudes that are both consciously and unconsciously promoted. Part of the solution is for Muslim-Americans to educate others on the issues that are unique to the Muslim community. But, Islamophobic sentiments, in its multiple forms, must be recognized. Only then can we create an environment of cultural awareness where the voices of everyday Muslim-Americans can actually be listened to and accepted, an environment devoid of Islamophobia — the diffusible stink that consumes the unsuspecting and fulfills the close-minded.

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Imaz Athar

Imaz Athar is a senior undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, double majoring in Neuroscience and Sociology. He aspires to become a physician and plans on attending medical school in Fall 2017. Imaz fell in love with the art of writing at a young age and is currently the Publisher of Pitt's undergraduate-run science magazine The Pitt Pulse. When he's not writing or keeping up with classes, Imaz enjoys running, playing basketball, watching Empire, singing (in the shower), and listening to all kinds of music.