At the beginning of the 1990s, the term Islamophobia emerged for the first time in the United States and Great Britain. It is a term used to describe an intense fear, dislike or hate of Muslims. A wealth of misinformation actively promotes Islamophobia in America. Self-reported knowledge, whether accurate or not, about the religion of Islam seems to affect Americans’ feelings of prejudice toward Muslims. Researchers are beginning to explore the impact that Islamophobia can have on the mental and physical health of Muslim-Americans.
Muslims constitute approximately 23 percent of the world’s population and serve as a majority in approximately 50 countries. The population of Muslims in the U.S. has grown to more than 2.6 million. Many of them arrived in North America hoping to escape the discrimination and hate occurring in their country. It is important to be aware that Muslims can have various races and ethnicities, since Islam is a religion and not an ethnicity. For example, in America the three largest ethnic Muslim groups are Arab Americans, African Americans and South Asians.
Perceptions of the Muslim community have changed dramatically after 9/11. The expected reaction to any terrorism attack is to point the finger at Muslims. Even though less than 2 percent of all terrorist attacks over the past five years have been religiously motivated. An FBI report shows only 6 percent of all terrorism attacks in the U.S. between 1980 and 2005 were committed by Muslims. Research shows that the U.S. identified more than 160 Muslim-American terrorist suspects in the decade since 9/11. That is just a percentage of the thousands of acts of violence that occur in the United States each year. According to the Muslim Public Affairs Counsel, since 9/11, the Muslim-American community has helped security and law enforcement officials prevent nearly two of every five al Qaeda terrorist plots threatening the United States. It is from government prosecution and media coverage that brings Muslim-American terrorism suspects to the national spotlight. As a consequence, many Muslims feel vulnerable.
Few studies on Muslim health exist. Most studies identified that daily, repetitive harassment is the biggest factor contributing to long-term mental health issues in Muslim populations. In a 2011 study on Muslim-Americans, researchers found that the vast majority of participants said they felt extremely safe prior to 9/11. Following the attack, 82 percent of them felt extremely unsafe. The researchers later found many of those studied developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from constant anxiety and abuse. Mental illness is often stigmatized in Muslim culture. Research by Allen and Nielsen (2002), indicated that one of the best predictors of becoming a victim of discrimination or harassment was being perceived as a Muslim. Having an Arab appearance or wearing specific garments such as a hijab was most closely associated with such incidents.
Many Muslims choose prayer or private coping before they seek professional help. Physical or mental illness may be seen as an opportunity to remedy disconnection from Allah or a lack of faith through regular prayer and a sense of self-responsibility (Padella et al., 2012). Imams (traditional spiritual leaders) are often seen as indirect agents of Allah’s will and facilitators of the healing process. Imams may also play central roles in shaping family and community attitudes and responses to illness guidelines, or birth customs (Padella et al., 2012). Many American physicians are not well versed on Muslim culture, including health-related traditions and beliefs like long fasts or end-of-life care. This may discourage many Muslims from seeking treatment.
In 2007 the Muslim Council of Britain issued the following statement: “Muslims everywhere consider all acts of terrorism that aim to murder and maim innocent human beings utterly reprehensible and abhorrent. There is no theological basis whatsoever for such acts in our faith. The very meaning of the word ‘Islam’ is peace. It rejects terror and promotes peace and harmony.”
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Muslim Public Affairs Counsel. (2013). A tracking of plots by Muslim and non-Muslim violent extremists against the United States. Retrieved from: http://www.mpac.org/publications/policy-papers/post-911-terrorism-database.php
Padela, A. I., Killawi, A., Forman, J., DeMonner, S., & Heisler, M. (2012). American Muslim perceptions of healing key agents in healing, and their roles. Qualitative Health Research, 22, 846-858.
Jonathan Torres, M.S.
WKPIC Doctoral Intern