Field notes

Taking on battle against Islamophobia in America

Experts say negative portrayals of Muslims in the media, funding of anti-Islam rhetoric and ignorance about the religion have worsened matters

WASHINGTON • When the Muslim community in Sterling Heights, Michigan, wanted to build a mosque, Marwa Khalil, 15, joined a peaceful demonstration outside City Hall in support of the project.

Marwa says she was there chanting "We love you" in response to the hateful placards of those opposing the mosque when a woman suddenly came charging at her.

Although other protesters held the woman back and Marwa was not hurt, the incident left a deep impression on her and she broke down after the event.

"I don't understand why they hate me. I am one of them, I am American," says Marwa, who was born in Iraq and moved to the United States with her family when she was nine years old.

Marwa's experience of being targeted just because she is a Muslim is not unique. The issue came to a head last month when Texas teenager Ahmed Mohamed took a homemade clock to school, hoping to impress his teacher, but ended up in handcuffs because the school thought his invention was a bomb hoax.

Outrage over the incident spread on social media, with many saying that Ahmed was profiled because he is a Muslim.

Anti-Muslim sentiments continued to make headlines last month when Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson commented in an interview on television network NBC that he would not support a Muslim as president of the United States as the religion is "incompatible with the US Constitution".

Experts say Islamophobia - prejudice towards or discrimination against Muslims - has been on the rise in the US since the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 by Al-Qaeda militants, although it is not a problem unique to the country.

Particularly disturbing is the fact that Muslim youth are not exempt from these religious biases, and can often be made to feel like outsiders in their own country.

The story of prejudice against Muslims in America, of course, takes place in the context of a larger backdrop of discrimination against other religions, races and social groups such as African Americans and the gay and lesbian community, which has also been in the news of late.

According to the 2014 Religious Landscape Study by Pew Research Centre, Muslims made up 0.9 per cent of the US population (318 million) last year.

And favourability towards the group dropped from 35 per cent in 2010 to 27 per cent last year, according to a report by the Arab American Institute.

A poll conducted last month by survey company Public Policy Polling in the southern state of North Carolina also showed that 40 per cent of Americans felt the practice of Islam should be made illegal in the US.

Another 40 per cent said it should be legal, while 20 per cent said they were unsure.

Experts say Islamophobia has worsened over the years due to the US' military engagement in the Middle East, negative portrayal of Muslims in the media, the funding of anti-Islam rhetoric, as well as a general lack of understanding of the religion.

Mr Nathan Lean, research director at Georgetown University's project on Islamophobia, the Bridge Initiative, says: "We hear about Muslims in the context of chaos, war and destruction... You don't get a normal portrait of what Muslims look like."

And it doesn't just happen in Hollywood - news outlets too are constantly reinforcing stereotypes and adding to the paranoia, says Mr Rizwan Jaka, chair of the Board for the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (Adams) based in Virginia and Washington, DC.

Not to be ignored is the well-funded anti-Muslim propaganda machine. The think-tank Centre for American Progress, in a 2011 report, stated that seven charitable foundations in the US spent US$42.6 million between 2001 and 2009 to support the spread of anti-Muslim rhetoric.

All these factors, coupled with Americans' lack of knowledge and interaction with the Muslim community here, have made the situation worse.

The Arab American Institute's report found that Americans who say they know either Arabs or Muslims have significantly higher favourable attitudes towards both groups - 33 per cent higher in both cases.

"Besides the ignorance about Islam, there is also 'otherisation' taking place," says Dr Sameera Ahmed, a clinical psychologist who is the director of non-profit group The Family and Youth Institute, and the lead author of a report on American Muslim youth. "Otherisation" is a concept from cultural studies and denotes a separation of "us" and "them", enabling "us" to treat "them" as lesser persons.

This animosity towards Muslims happens in concert with the animosity towards recent immigrants, when the reality is that many Muslims have been in the US for hundreds of years, says Dr Sameera.

Mr Rizwan adds that a third of enslaved Africans who built America were Muslims.

But until the population becomes more visible, this "otherisation" that Dr Sameera speaks of can be particularly problematic when directed at younger Muslims.

Looking forward, the US think-tank Pew Research Centre projects that in 2050, Muslims will become the largest non-Christian religious group in the US, making up 2.1 per cent of the population.

"For young people who are born and raised here, this is their country, their home. They see themselves as an equal part of this nation, but they are being told 'You don't belong'," says Dr Sameera.

Ms Rihan Issa, 23, says this reality certainly became apparent in her freshman year at college.

As a Muslim American who wears a headscarf, she says most of her schoolmates at Eastern Michigan University avoided her - something she never had to deal with previously because the schools she attended had students from similar backgrounds.

"If I didn't approach someone, nobody would approach me," she says.

Once she got a conversation going, people often asked why she wore the headscarf or would be surprised that she spoke fluent English.

She says it was a "mental strain" on her to represent her community and try to counter the impressions others had.

"You carry that around and it takes a toll on you," says Ms Rihan, who now works part-time in advocacy for Access, an Arab American non-profit organisation.

The gravity of the situation becomes even more apparent when educational institutions in the US can no longer be relied on to provide a safe environment for all students, as in the case of Ahmed.

"He was targeted precisely because he is a brown-skinned Muslim kid with a name like Ahmed Mohamed," says Mr Lean.

Condemning the incident, Mr Bob Marro, board member and government relations chair at Adams, calls it a "knee-jerk reaction where prejudice overruled common sense".

On the other hand, Mr Daniel Pipes, president of the right-wing think-tank Middle East Forum, says: "Islamists have frequently engaged in violence against fellow Americans, so naturally Americans are on the lookout against Muslims who may be Islamists bent on further violence. There is nothing prejudicial about this; it is instinctive self-preservation."

A Federal Bureau of Investigation report, however, shows that from 1980 to 2005, only 6 per cent of terrorist attacks on US soil were committed by Muslims.

Ahmed, to some extent, was fortunate that his brush with discrimination was widely condemned by the science and tech community, with many using the #Istandwithahmed hashtag online to show their support when the news broke.

But for every Ahmed, numerous other instances of Islamophobia go unnoticed, and that is where the problem lies, says Dr Sameera.

"There are many other Ahmeds who may not get this support... If this incident had not led to the support he is receiving, it could have led to a different trajectory," says Dr Sameera.

The impact, she says, would differ with each individual: Some young people might feel disconnected to the school and not try as hard and ultimately drop out; others might engage in behaviour such as drug or alcohol abuse while the most extreme cases would be those who become "disenfranchised with society and end up being radicalised".

Stressing the importance of outreach, Mr Rizwan says his organisation holds hundreds of interfaith activities each year and works with schools as well as law enforcement to counter anti-Muslim sentiment.

The last time Islamophobia was so widely discussed in the US was earlier this year when three Muslim students were killed in their home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. That sparked a media frenzy for a number of weeks about hate crimes in the US but eventually died down.

This raises the question of whether there has been any progress at all on the issue, or if it is just an unending cycle of token activism.

Mr Lean acknowledges that interest in the matter ebbs and flows, but he says the work of combating Islamophobia is incremental and cumulative. Each event is an opportunity to "grow the number of people who do speak up on the matter".

For young people like Marwa, aware of the discrimination they face at home, the work to change perspectives a little at a time continues.

She has even joined rallies by African Americans against police brutality because she believes it is her duty to get involved in all matters of discrimination.

"As Muslims and Arabs, we can show that we are not so different," she says.

Thinking back to the incident in Sterling Heights, she adds: "I don't want my kids to go through what I had to go through."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2015, with the headline 'Taking on battle against Islamophobia in America'. Print Edition | Subscribe