Muslims Make Inroads By Outreach
- OUTREACH EFFORTS HELP MUSLIMS MAKE INROADS
Motaz Elshafi, 28, a software engineer, casually opened an internal
e-mail at work last month. The message began, "Dear Terrorist."
The note from a co-worker was sent to Muslims working at Cisco Systems
in Research Triangle Park, N.C., a few days after train bombings in
India that killed 207. The e-mail warned that such violent acts
wouldn't intimidate people, but only make them stronger.
"I was furious," says Elshafi, who is New Jersey-born and bred. "What
did I have to do with this violence?"
PHOTO GALLERY: U.S. Muslims face stress in post-9/11 world
Reports of such harassment and discrimination against Muslims are
rising, advocacy groups say. A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,007
Americans shows strong anti-Muslim feeling. And the hard feelings are
damaging the mental health of U.S. Muslims, suggest new studies to be
released at the American Psychological Association meeting starting
Thursday in New Orleans.
Thirty-nine percent of respondents to the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll said
they felt at least some prejudice against Muslims. The same percentage
favored requiring Muslims, including U.S. citizens, to carry a special
ID "as a means of preventing terrorist attacks in the United States."
About one-third said U.S. Muslims were sympathetic to al-Qaeda, and
22% said they wouldn't want Muslims as neighbors.
Verbal harassment and discrimination correlate with worse mental
health in studies of Muslims and Arab-Americans since 9/11, says
psychologist Mona Amer of Yale University School of Medicine.
In her new study of 611 adults, thought to be the largest ever done on
Arab-Americans, they had much worse mental health than Americans
overall. About half had symptoms of clinical depression, compared with
20% in an average U.S. group, Amer says.
Muslims, who made up 70% of the study's participants, had poorer
mental health than Christians. Those less likely to be depressed or
anxious were people who kept their ethnic or religious ties but also
had relationships with other people in the community. And more
Christians than Muslims lived this "integrated" lifestyle, Amer says.
Though Muslims said they wanted more contact with Americans of other
religions, it may be easier for Arab Christians to integrate, Amer
"They share the mainstream religion. Muslims may have different kinds
of names or dress differently and, especially since 9/11, they're
Bias leads to depression
Virtually no mental health research was done on U.S. Muslims before
9/11, so her findings can't be compared with earlier studies. A new
publication, the Journal of Muslim Mental Health, began publication in
May, signaling concern about the growing problems and lack of research.
Many therapists are counseling more Arab-Americans and Muslims since
9/11, Amer says. Also, in surveys of Muslim spiritual leaders to be
reported at the psychological association meeting, the imams report a
surge in worshipers seeking help for anxiety and stress related to
Reports of such abuses skyrocketed in the first six months after9/11,
fell in 2002 and have climbed again since the Iraq war began in 2003,
according to data kept by the Council on American-Islamic Relations,
an education and advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
The number of assault and other discriminatory complaints filed with
the group jumped from 1,019 in 2003 to 1,972 in 2005, says Arsalan
Iftikhar, national legal director.
Nobody knows what proportion of U.S. Muslims encounter discrimination;
even Muslims disagree.
"I don't think there's a Muslim out there who hasn't felt some kind of
fallout from 9/11," says Jafar Siddiqui, 55, a real estate agent in
Lynnwood, Wash. "I myself have been invited to 'go home' at least once
a month." Siddiqui has been a U.S. citizen for 20 years.
Despite an increase in harassment since 9/11, "many, many have not
felt any discrimination," says Farid Senzai, research director of the
Detroit-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a
non-profit started four years ago to do research on Muslims.
Harassment charges claiming unreasonable arrest and detention have
garnered the most publicity. But discriminatory acts in everyday life
in shops, schools and at work are reported about as frequently to
the American-Islamic relations council.
Elshafi, who got the nasty e-mail at work, still wonders at the
boldness of a person who would send such a note. The sender was asked
to apologize to several employees who filed complaints with Cisco's
human resources department, says Elshafi, who didn't file a complaint.
"We wouldn't confirm a specific internal incident on the record," says
Cisco's Robyn Jenkins Blum, who adds, "It is Cisco's policy not to
tolerate artificial divisions or harassment of any individual."
Elshafi, a worshiper at the local mosque, says he has received a lot
of support from non-Muslim friends at work. "After 9/11, people would
say, 'Don't worry, 'Taz, we've got your back.' " He says Muslims are
not doing enough to educate people about their religious practices.
"We need to talk about our beliefs, know our neighbors."
People such as Elshafi are least vulnerable to becoming depressed due
to bigotry, says John Dovidio, a University of Connecticut
psychologist and expert on prejudice. "He gets strength from his group
identity and support from the outside."
Many are not nearly as fortunate. Children of recent immigrants, women
who wear the traditional head scarves or long robes and
Iraqi-Americans often aren't faring as well, according to reports at
the psychological association meeting.
In Seattle, Hate Free Zone Washington, an education and advocacy
group, was launched five years ago to oppose backlash against local
Muslims, Sikhs (sometimes mistaken for Muslims) and Arab-Americans.
"We've seen an increase in bias-based harassment since 9/11," says
Amelia Derr, the group's education director.
Derr says she has seen some Muslim children so traumatized by violent
bigotry that she wonders whether they'll ever recover. Last October, a
Seattle high school junior who had faced verbal harassment was
assaulted in gym class. He suffered a hemorrhage behind his eye and a
collapsed lung, Derr says. "The good thing is that the student who did
it was convicted of a hate crime."
But the beaten boy won't go back to school, she says. "He's terrified.
You can see how damaged he has been. He won't look you in the eye; he
just shrinks back. He won't talk." The family came from Afghanistan
four years ago, she says.
Even some who were born and raised in the USA feel their religious
freedom has limits. Jafumba Asad, 32, of Tulsa stopped wearing the
traditional dark robe after 9/11. "It's bad enough just wearing a head
scarf. I get nasty stares every day. Wearing full cover makes it
harder to get a job. It scares people," says Asad, a community college
teacher and graduate student.
Muslim women who wear head scarves are more likely than those who
don't to say they face discrimination and a hostile environment,
according to a study to be presented at the psychological
association's meeting by Alyssa Rippy of the University of Tulsa. The
scarves make Muslim women stand out and could change behavior toward
them, she suggests.
A few years ago, in a Wal-Mart parking lot, Asad says two men
approached her and aggressively shouted "Y'all ought to be (expletive)
locked up!" Pregnant at the time, she quickly backed away and then
realized there were parked cars behind her. "I felt trapped and very
vulnerable. I'm pregnant. I didn't know if they were going to get
violent." Luckily, she says, they just walked away.
The mother of three girls says she developed ulcers a few months after
9/11. "I feel stressed a lot."
In Rippy's study, Muslim men were just as likely as women to report
discrimination but more likely to become mistrustful and wary because
of it. That can encourage sticking with your own group, "which
intensifies feelings of paranoia," she says.
Iraq war's fallout
Men may back away more than women because they feel discrimination
could have more serious consequences for them, for example being
pegged as a terrorist or jailed, Rippy says.
The USA TODAY/Gallup Poll suggests Americans have greater fear of
Muslim men than women: 31% said they'd feel more nervous flying if a
Muslim man was on the plane; 18% said they'd be more nervous with a
Muslim woman. The poll, conducted July 28-30, has a margin of error of
plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The Iraq war has made its mark on U.S. Muslims as well, psychologist
Ibrahim Kira will say at the meeting. In his study of Iraqi-Americans,
the more time people spent listening to the radio and watching TV news
about the war, the more likely they were to have post-traumatic stress
disorder. Many of them had relatives still in Iraq, and
stress-disorder rates were high: 14% compared with 4% for the U.S.
population, Kira says.
Tuning in to war news also correlated with more stress-related health
problems, such as high blood pressure, headaches and stomach trouble,
Although the war creates special problems for Iraqi-Americans, they
also share a key challenge with other Muslims: lack of trust from
people living here. Many Americans clearly don't trust those of the
Muslim faith. In fact, 54% said they couldn't vote for a Muslim for
president in a June Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll. That compares
with 21% who turned thumbs-down on an evangelical Christian and 15%
who wouldn't cast their ballot for a Jew.
Amer believes the world has changed for U.S. Muslims since Sept. 11
but says: "I don't think Americans understand what's happened. Muslims
have the same anxieties and anguish about terrorism as everyone else
in the U.S. At the same time, they're being blamed for it. They're
carrying a double burden."
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