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Islamophobia in the U.S.: A Threat to Justice Everywhere


By Muninder Kaur Ahluwalia, PhD (Montclair State University) and Saba Rasheed Ali, PhD (University of Iowa)

A Muslim mom, Melissa Chance Yassini, recently wrote on her Facebook page:

Sad day in America when I have to comfort my 8 year old child who heard that someone with yellow hair named Trump wanted to kick all Muslims out of America. She had began collecting all her favorite things in a bag in case the army came to remove us from our homes. She checked the locks on the door 3-4 times. This is terrorism. No child in America deserves to feel that way.

This scenario illustrates how Islamophobia in the U.S. is making many American Muslims feel unsafe in the country they call home. Islamophobia can be defined as an unfounded dislike, distrust, fear, prejudice, or hatred against Muslims or Islam.

Islamophobia really began during the European enlightenment in early 19th century with the rise of Orientalism. On the Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Stereotypes website , Dr. Edward W. Said characterizes Orientalism in part as the Western depiction of Arab cultures as inferior or even dangerous. This philosophy is believed to be the foundation for modern day Islamophobia.

Islamophobia is exacerbated whenever the U.S. has conflict with Middle Eastern countries or a terrorist attack occurs on Western soil.  Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., Islamophobia has undergone a period of dramatic spikes and declines. Immediately after 9/11 anti-Muslim sentiment rose sharply and then declined until the controversy over the Ground Zero faith center saw an increase in anti-Muslim hostility.

The anti-Muslim rhetoric of the current presidential election coupled with recent terrorist attacks by the so called Islamic State (or ISIS) has also produced another spike in backlash against Muslims according to an article in the New York Times. They reported that the rate of hate crimes directed at Muslims in the U.S. tripled after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino according to data from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University.

The result of Islamophobia is discrimination and oppression against not only Muslims, but anyone who “appears” or “sounds” Muslim, including Sikhs and non-Muslim Arabs, and Hindus. Throughout U.S. history, we have falsely assumed that individuals who are visible racial and ethnic minorities are aligned with their country of origin or ancestry to the detriment of their loyalty to the United States. Our history provides numerous examples of this type of systemic oppression, where individuals with minority or marginalized identities were enslaved, denied citizenship, denied the right to vote, had their children taken forcibly from their families, and imprisoned.

In the 1940s during WWII, Japanese Americans living in California were branded as a “foreign enemy,” simultaneously stripped of their homes, property, and possessions and placed into internment camps. This violation of human rights occurred despite the fact that most Americans of Japanese descent expressed their strong allegiance to the U.S. and had never lived in Japan. In 1988, the Civil Liberties Act was signed into law, acknowledging that the treatment of Japanese Americans was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

However, comments and proposals by a number of 2016 presidential candidates  evoke sentiments reminiscent of the 1940s, with political leaders using fear and anger to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment. Presidential candidates have invoked some of the same hysteria regarding Muslims (and Sikhs and Arabs) in the U.S. used for Japanese Americans during WWII. For example, politicians have suggested registering Muslims, banning Muslims from entry into the country, and constant police surveillance of Muslims as options.

Islamophobia can have grave legal, physical health and mental health effects for individuals in the Muslim, Sikh and Arab communities. These consequences parallel those that are faced by individuals with other marginalized and targeted identities, as referenced in APA’s report on discrimination and diversity. Islamophobia is deeply institutionalized in the U.S.

Law enforcement routinely conducts surveillance on Muslim communities, and the TSA often unfairly conducts additional screenings for Sikh boys and men who wear patkas and turbans, asking them to remove their religious head covering and testing their hands for explosives. Increased surveillance of Muslim communities (or those perceived to be Muslim) has been associated with heightened anxiety and stress (see “Under Surveillance and Overwrought: American Muslims’ Emotional and Behavioral Responses to Government Surveillance”).

In addition, there are numerous hate crimes linked to Islamophobia, including the 2012 mass shooting by a white supremacist gunman who targeted and killed Sikhs in their Oak Creek, Wisconsin gurdwara (Sikh place of worship). The gunman misidentified the Sikhs as Muslims because of mass media’s stereotyping of Muslims as people who wear turbans.

When individuals are targeted because of their identity, their persistent experiences with hate crimes and institutionalized oppression can result in anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. In addition, these individuals may internalize the oppression, taking in the negative, faulty messages about them and their communities as truth.

This internalized oppression can directly impact individuals’ feeling that they need to hide or discard their religious identifiers (e.g., the hijab or headscarf for Muslim women, the turban for Sikh men) or cease attendance at their places of worship. The indirect impact of Islamophobia on all minority and marginalized communities is that they feel their position in this country and thereby their rights are precarious. In addition, the impact on larger society is that justice becomes irrelevant.

In the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote,

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly.”

Islamophobia is a threat to justice and threatens the shared destiny of humankind.

Psychologists, in their roles as mental health practitioners, researchers, educators, trainers, and consultants, have a responsibility to help combat Islamophobia within themselves and in others. Psychological science tells us that it can be done.

The first steps include a greater awareness of self, and an understanding of how privilege and power play out to continue oppression of Muslims, Sikhs and Arabs. From there, education and increased interaction amongst people from different faith and ethnic backgrounds can promote tolerance and respect. This is often referred to in psychology as the contact hypothesis. Even if the contact is not actual, but merely imagined, people can reduce prejudice. The imagine contact hypothesis (i.e., imagining a positive interaction with an outgroup member) has been shown to reduce prejudice against Muslims and other minority groups (for more information, see this meta-analytic test of the imagined contact hypothesis).

And finally, Islamophobia can be fought by openly advocating for respect and humanity. At the beginning of this blog entry, we spoke about the young Muslim girl living in fear. In response to that, U.S. soldiers and veterans from different faiths and ethnic backgrounds publicly stated their intent to protect her, using social media as an exemplary way to counteract widespread discrimination and prejudice directed at Muslim children.


Dr. Muninder K. Ahluwalia is an Associate Professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Leadership at Montclair State University.  She earned her PhD in counseling psychology from New York University in 2002.  Her research and teaching have focused on multicultural issues in counseling, the experiences of Sikh Americans since 9/11, intersectionality, and patterns of race and racism in academia. She was awarded the American Counseling Association Counselors for Social Justice ‘Ohana Award in 2012. In addition to her academic work, she currently serves on the editorial board of the Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology, and as an advisory board member on the Committee for Diversity and Public Interest for the Counseling Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association. She has previously served as chair of the Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs of the American Psychological Association. In her consultation practice, she provides diversity assessment, training, and programming for a wide range of organizations.

Dr. Saba Rasheed Ali is an associate professor of counseling psychology in the Department of Quantitative and Psychological Foundations at the University of Iowa. She earned her PhD in counseling psychology from the University of Oregon in 2001. Her research interest are concerned with issues related to Islam and psychology, feminism, and vocational psychology. She is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the current chair of the Society for Vocational Psychology. In 2004, she published an article entitled Islam 101: Understanding the Religion and Therapy Implications with her colleagues, William Liu and Majeda Humedian. She has been active in providing webinars, presentations, and workshops to psychologists, mental health providers, and community members on issues related to Islamophobia and Muslim Americans.

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