Living with Islamophobia

Nala Kachour, junior biology major and president of the Muslim Student Association, explains her religious background and individual experiences with Islamophobia. / photo by Ariel Torres

Layla Abbas
Editorial Director

At first glance, people would not assume I am Middle Eastern, specifically Palestinian. I always thought my large nose easily gives it away, but my name is the first indicator that I am a Muslim. 

It took me awhile before I learned the negative connotations linked to my religion; the prejudice, disapproval and discrimination from people who think all Muslims are terrorists. 

I was in fourth grade when a white boy in my class called me a terrorist with no reasoning or explanation to accompany that strong, hurtful comment that stuck with me for years. I was confused, surprised and embarrassed.

This was something I did not think about again until my senior year of high school, when something worse happened to me.

I was the editor-in-chief of the Redlands Unified School Districts’ first digital newspaper called Ethic News. I was in my literature class when my teacher asked me to leave and go to the newsroom right away. 

There was a letter to the editor, addressed to me, and it read: “Layla Abbas is a dirty towel-head Muslim. I feel the need to wear a bomb vest whenever I am around you in case you are wearing a bomb vest and scream ‘Allah hu akbar.’ If we elect Donald Trump…he would deport all of you back to Egypt where you belong.” 

That immediately made my palms sweat, my heart race and my skin flush; I had the same embarrassment I felt as that confused fourth grader.

This letter, which met a 300-word count, was filled with hateful comments that left me feeling isolated and defeated. 

Over time I began to come to terms with the negative biases and hate people had against the Muslim community.

Islamophobia is the fear, hatred or prejudice toward the religion of Islam or Muslims in general.

Hate on the rise

Anti-Muslim bias has more than tripled over the last decade, according to the 2017 FBI hate Crime statistics. Hate crimes motivated by religious bias accounted for 1,679 offenses reported by law enforcement in 2017, with 18.7% of the crimes geared toward the Muslim population, an almost 10% increase since 2007.

For Nala Kachour, junior biology major at the University of La Verne, Islamophobia has factored into all aspects of her life in direct and indirect ways since she was 7 years old.

“My mom was shopping at Michael’s and this person looked at her and I think this was only a few years after 9/11. This man looked at my mom and he looked back at one of the employees and said, ‘What is this trash doing here, get this trash out of here,’” Kachour said. “He was raising his voice, but my mom did not say anything. She continued shopping and tried to move away from him and disregard him.”

Kachour said since she was a child, she was aware of a two-faced perception of Islam; the Islam she sees, practices and loves and the other that some non-Muslims view as bad because they have placed heinous actions of some Muslims to represent the entire community.

A 2017 Pew Research Center study, “U.S. Muslims Concerned About Their Place in Society, but Continue to Believe in the American Dream,” found the early days of Trump’s presidency have been an anxious and unsettling time for many Muslim Americans. 

According to the study, those with a distinct Muslim appearance are more likely to experience discrimination. 

Overall about four-in-10 Muslims, or 38% – including half of Muslim women – say on a typical day there is something distinctive about their appearance, voice or clothing that people might associate with Muslims. Of those who are easily identifiable as Muslims, nearly two-thirds say they have experienced at least one of the specific types of discrimination asked in the survey.

A physical appearance factor that can signal someone is distinctly Muslim is the hijab. Kachour has worn a hijab, or a head scarf since she was 9.

Hijab empowers identity

Kachour said although living in an Islamic household influenced her decision to wear a hijab, she made the decision independently. 

The hijab represents modesty, freedom and independence.

“I feel like freedom and independence is exactly the opposite of what people might think about the hijab,” Kachour said. “When people are telling me ‘this is not your decision,’ and I am being pulled around by different people, by men to wear this, they are the ones who are keeping me in a cage when they say that.”

“When I put on my hijab, I feel that I am liberating myself, and I am making myself free because I am doing what I want to do. I am not following the norms of society that tell me this is how you should dress up and this is how you should look, or else if you (don’t) you are going to be regarded as an oppressed person.”

The beginning of Trump’s presidency sparked fear in women around her who wear the hijab because people would immediately know they are Muslim, Kachour said. 

“People were scared and women wanted to take off their hijab,” she said. “In fact their mothers were advising for them to take it off to decrease their chance of being involved in hate crimes. I was never scared, and honestly those people who were scared because of it, I look down upon them. Instead of getting up on your feet and making yourself stronger, you are diminishing Islam and making it disappear in that way.”

Muslims targeted

The Pew Research study found nearly half of Muslims say they have experienced at least one of these types of discrimination over the past year, which is slightly up from 2011 and 2007. 

The types outlined in the survey include being physically threatened or attacked, singled out by law enforcement or airport security, called offensive names, and treated with suspicion. 

Kachour said that although people have been harsh and demeaning to her because of her physical appearance, she tries to disregard it entirely. 

She experienced an incident of Islamophobia when she was in high school volunteering at Casa Colina Hospital. 

“A man came up to me, well he did not even come up to me, he was pretty far away and he was basically yelling at me saying, ‘Aren’t you hot in that?’” Kachour said. 

“I could not hear him because he was so far away so I said ‘I am sorry?’ and he repeated it again. I told him ‘no’ and he went on …‘You can wear that in your country where it is cold. You can wear whatever you want. Men can wear their dishdasha and women can wear whatever you are wearing, but do not wear it here.’ It hit me because this is my country. I was born here so how am I expected to go back to my country?”

Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi, a member of the board of trustees at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and research psychologist, said the effects of Islamophobia can continue across a lifespan. 

It can affect daily functioning, undermine confidence, and even affect the kinds of careers Muslims want to pursue, she said.

“Many women in a headscarf are less likely to get jobs or may not bother applying for jobs that require greater public interaction, like a police officer or a pilot, because they are whittled down to a stereotyped image and the Islamophobia associated with that image.”

Discrimination at work

Pasha-Zaidi conducted a study in 2011 called, “Can I get a job if I wear the hijab?” 

She collected information from over 300 South Asian Muslim women in the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates. 

The findings from her study showed that among South Asian Muslim women, the hijab was associated with perceptions of being less employable in both regions.

“In the U.S., this is not surprising as the hijab represents Muslim-ness and as such, it can and does incite feelings and behaviors related to Islamophobia,” Pasha-Zaidi said. 

“Within the UAE, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where most of my data collection took place, there are so many different international forms of dress that the hijab is not just a representation of Muslim-ness, but rather a reflection of one’s ethnicity and nationality.”

Pasha-Zaidi said in the UAE, wearing a headscarf is as much a part of the norm as not wearing a headscarf, so that in itself cannot be the explanation for this belief that hijab means a woman is less employable. 

This may contribute to Western perspectives that consider the hijab a foreign way of dress, she said. 

 The Pew Research study also found that 64% of Muslims in the U.S. say there is more than one true way to interpret Islam.  They also are more likely to say traditional understandings of Islam need to be reinterpreted in light of modern contexts. 

Islamophobia explained

Kachour said she believes Islam is not just a world-view, but also a lifestyle. 

“If you want to pray, Islam tells you how to pray to God. If you want to give to charity, Islam will tell you how to give to charity. If you want to eat, Islam will tell you how to eat,” Kachour said. 

“For example if you are inviting some people to your home for a meal, it is requested you are the first person to eat so you encourage your guests to eat and that you are the last person to finish eating.”

The term Islamophobia was first used by painter Alphonse Etienne Dinet and Algerian intellectual Sliman ben Ibrahim in their 1918 biography of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. 

In French, the term used was ‘islamophobie’ and translated to “feelings of inimical to Islam.” 

The term was first used in English in 1978 by Edward Said in his book, “Orientalism.”

“Orientalism,” revealed the main premise behind anti-Islam arguments and looks to history to explain why right-wing rhetoric has wavered toward anti-Muslim ideals through historical events.

Jason Neidleman, professor of political science, said Edward Said often associates Islamophobia with anti-Semitism.

“In the 1970s, especially during the oil crisis, Said tracks a lot of Islamophobia in the form of historically anti-Semitic tropes that are starting in the ’70s,” Neidleman said. “This began to be applied to Arabs and Muslims, so that is probably why he originally uses the term in 1978. But it has to do with the oil crisis and the fear or power Middle Eastern people have over the Westerners in regards to the oil supply and being able to control the supply of oil.”

Neidleman points to the fear people faced toward the Muslim population from certain political violence like the U.S. airline hijacking in the 1970s, Munich Olympics and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“In the coverage of the Oklahoma City bombings, you really saw Islamophobia at work,” Neidleman said. 

“Before we figured out that the bomber there was a home grown Christian, a person of European descent, there was a lot of hysteria about brown men near the building in Oklahoma City, who may have been responsible for the attack. On the news they said things like, ‘This has the hallmark of a Middle Eastern attack.’”

Neidleman said when people are looking to justify interventions, an accompanying ideology or set of ideas is needed to justify the actions, making Islamophobia useful in this way. 

“If Americans are afraid of a threat that Islam may pose, they will probably be more willing to support a war in an Islamic country,” Neidleman said. “That really contributes to Islamophobia, and then there is an industry that grows up after that in the U.S. that encourages that kind of thinking because it is conducive to this imperial project that we have in the Middle East.”

Neidleman acknowledges that this idea was intensified by President Trump’s 2017 Muslim Ban, which restricts entry of citizens from seven majority Muslim countries, including banning Syrian refugees from the U.S. indefinitely.

Islamophobia on campus

I conducted an informal 12-question survey about Islamophobia among undergraduate students at the University of La Verne. 

About 50 responses came in, and overall the level of Islamophobia on campus is not prominent, yet some questions displayed signs of the phobia at work. 

I asked if President Trump’s travel ban was a positive step in eradicating terrorism and received a mixed response. 

Although 50% strongly disagreed with the statement, 26% either strongly agreed, felt neutral, or agreed with the statement. 

I asked if people believe Muslims as a whole have contributed more harm than good to our country, and 43% disagreed, 29% were neutral or agreed.

“If you look at President Bush, he used to try to distinguish peaceful devout Muslims from Islamic extremists, and same with Obama,” Neidleman said. 

“Trump is pretty clumsy, he just conflates all Muslims. Instead of targeting people who have documented history in participating in extreme groups, he calls for a complete and total ban on all travel on all Muslims to the U.S.”

“The reason I would call it racist is because when you treat an individual on the basis of their membership in a group, that essentially is the definition of racism.”

Pasha-Zaidi said those who look Muslim can face discrimination within the health care system. 

“At the individual level, Islamophobia increases the stress response which can lead to a variety of physical and psychological ailments,” she said. 

“Muslims are living in a state of hypervigilance – always on the lookout for negative news coverage of Muslims or personal discrimination. This can result in mental health symptoms such as recurring nightmares, anxiety, a sense of dread, depression and anger.”

Discrimination harms health

A 2017 study called “Islamophobia, Health, and Public Health: A Systematic Literature Review,” by Goleen Samari, Héctor E. Alcalá and Mienah Zulfacar Sharif, conducted a meta-analysis of 111 peer-reviewed studies and found associations between Islamophobia and poor mental health and less than optimum health seeking behaviors. 

The authors found links between Islamophobia, health and socio-ecological determinants of health. This led the group to call for more studies addressing the discrimination-related poor health that Muslims and Muslim-like subgroups experience and demand a fundamental right to health for all religious groups.

“Islamophobia is not only linked to poor health outcomes, but is also reflective of a larger problem related to people not seeking health-related care,” Pasha-Zaidi said. 

“As many Muslims come from cultures where poor mental health is viewed as a taboo topic, this latter aspect is not really surprising. Not addressing mental health issues can lead to long-term problems. It really is a public health concern.”

Hanien Samara, junior biology major at the University of La Verne, said although she has not experienced racial comments directed toward her on campus, the negative perceptions the Middle Eastern culture receives is something she has always been aware of. 

“Growing up as a post 9/11 baby, you are aware of the political climate and cultural setting you are being raised in,” Samara said. “Because I am of Middle Eastern heritage, it is important for other individuals to understand that being part of a culture, religion or a specific background does not force you to do any actions.”

Samara said the language the media uses to identify individuals involved in terrorist attacks plays a large role in the issue of Islamophobia.

“The language the media utilizes is important,” Samara said. “An incident regarding one person of a certain race, color and faith might be seen as a terrorist attack, but another person committing a very similar or same act who is a different race might be portrayed differently.”

In the survey I conducted, I asked where people feel they have received their perceptions of Islam, whether good or bad. Over half of the responses said their understanding of Islam came from the media. 

Pasha-Zaidi said discrimination and negative attitudes toward Muslims is a result of people who do not know stigmatized groups and hear misinformation.

“Adults, parents, caregivers, teachers and other trusted individuals pass down their attitudes to children who do not have the emotional or cognitive maturity to reflect on those isms,” Pasha-Zaidi said. “As a result, we are seeing increasing levels of bullying against Muslim children.”

According to the Middle Eastern Monitor, a 9-year-old Syrian refugee committed suicide after she was bullied by her peers for being a refugee and appearing ‘different’ in Canada. 

The family came to Canada three years ago as government sponsored refugees fleeing the war in Syria. 

The child, Amal Alshteiwi, complained of being physically and verbally abused by classmates. Amal moved schools, but the bullying continued, which led her to commit suicide. 

“The state of Syria and the refugee crisis has resulted in the displacement of over 5.5 million people to countries outside of Syria,” Pasha-Zaidi said. “The fear non-Muslim countries experience when they hear ‘the Muslims are coming’ gets passed down to their children.

“If there is no concerted effort by local communities to counter this message, children will continue to behave in ways that are destructive to each other and to themselves,” Pasha-Zaidi said.

Seeking support systems

She said Muslim children are caught in the middle and need more support systems to navigate through the Islamophobia they might experience.

“Islamic schools and community centers need to have more mental health screenings for both adults and children,” Pasha-Zaidi said. “For many refugees, they may end up in spaces where there are limited resources for Muslims and the host community may or may not be welcoming.”

Pasha-Zaidi said members of interfaith communities who transfer the peaceful message of Islam to communities will be a viable resource in mitigating the issue of Islamophobia. 

She said it is often second generation Muslims who bear most of the brunt of Islamophobia as they attempt to seek belonging. 

“It is propagated by more recently social media—depending on what kinds of media a person consumes,” Pasha-Zaidi said. 

“Most discrimination and negative attitudes result from people who do not know a person from a stigmatized group, so they are incited by repeated and often inaccurate messages.”

Layla Abbas can be reached at

Ariel Torres

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